Power Up Your Socratic Seminars with Backchanneling

August 04, 2014
Emily Tetzloff
Classroom teacher
Homestead Elementary School
Centennial, CO
CATEGORIES In the Classroom, Technology Integration

After witnessing the power of using Socratic Seminars in my fourth-grade reading class to deconstruct text and support thinking with evidence, I committed to continually changing the process so it didn't become stagnant. Typically, students get an article ahead of time and expand on 3-5 sentence stems to organize their thinking before coming to the class discussion. They sit in a circle and engage in higher-level thinking conversations using the stems they prepared and elaborating on the thoughts of others.

Although I started with this standard format, I wanted students to have more opportunities to contribute their thinking. I tried arranging students into two separate circles, but then I couldn't be part of both discussions. I then arranged them into an inner circle to discuss the article and an outer circle to provide constructive and positive feedback to the participants. I appreciated the observations of the outside circle, but felt that they were missing an opportunity to have their voices heard during the seminar.

Enter Backchanneling
By allowing the outer circle to have a silent discussion in the backchannel, everyone can contribute simultaneously. My students use Schoology discussion boards on their iPads, but you can also use TodaysMeet, Collaborize Classroom, Backchannel Chat, or other similar backchanneling tools.

Every student prepares for our weekly Socratic Seminar by annotating the text, identifying questions or comments, and supporting those thoughts with evidence from the article. When annotating, they look for evidence from the text to support their thinking. For example, if they have a question about the article based on a sentence in the text, they highlight that sentence and make a note about their question on the side. They also highlight key points as well as ways the nonfiction features support the text or connections they're making with the article.

How It Works
On the day of the Socratic Seminar, they find out if they're part of the inner or outer circle. This ensures that everyone enters the conversation with enough schema to follow along. The outside circle uses the backchannel to comment on positive contributions from the discussion participants and to carry on a discussion, as the inside circle engages in the verbal conversation.

Starting at the beginning of the year, we practice using positive, kind, and caring language to give and receive constructive criticism. Someone in the outside circle might post, "I like how Sara supported her thinking with a sentence from the article," or "When Steven referenced the part of the article with zodiac signs, it made me think about the science unit on stars that we studied at the beginning of the year." As students are backchanneling, I read along with their comments, clarifying any misconceptions and adding comments of my own to support the verbal conversation of the inside circle and the online discussion of the outside circle. Giving everyone a voice empowers them to elicit higher-level thinking skills and ensures a high level of engagement for everyone.

After students finish the seminar, they self-assess their involvement in the discussion through a Google Doc. Questions on the Doc address how they prepared for the seminar, their participation in the Socratic Seminar, how well they achieved the SMART goal they set the week before, and their new SMART goal for the following week. I think it's important that students are always working to better themselves and assess how well the work they put into preparation for the seminar contributed to their success. Following the self-assessment in Google forms, all students are allowed to go back into the backchannel and add comments, clarify confusions, or add perspectives they didn't articulate during the live seminar.

Does It Work?
Empowering students through backchanneling has added a layer of commitment and engagement that was previously missing. My students have learned a valuable lesson: They have a voice and can utilize the power of online learning to ensure that their voice is heard.

I immediately noticed that the engagement of all students increased.


"Socratic seminar yesterday" by Jennifer Roberts. Used under a CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.