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Reading & Writing in the Disciplines

Using the Socratic Method in History

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Co-teachers Addie Male and Raeann McElveen prepare students for a Socratic seminar by using multiple sources, student-generated questions, students’ personal goals, and contextual evidence.

Teacher: Addie Male and Raeann McElveen

School: Millennium Brooklyn High School, Brooklyn, NY

Grade: 10

Discipline: History (Humanities 11)

Lesson Topic: Voices from the field: Perspectives of the soldiers

Lesson Month: March

Number of Students: 25

Other: Collaborative team teaching. Humanities is a two-year course combining English and social studies. The course culminates in a Global History NYS Regents exam.

Featured Lesson’s Student Goals:

  • Content objectives – Utilize student-generated questions to explore and discuss primary and secondary resource material via a Socratic seminar; utilize student-facilitated and -generated discussion to further delve into essential questions surrounding causes of WWI and realities for soldiers during WWI
  • Literacy/language objectives – Cite textual evidence to support ideas and to engage in student-centered discussion; ask questions of a text once annotated; develop descriptive language with historical accuracy
  • Engagement/interaction objectives – Initiate and participate effectively in a range of collaborative discussions with diverse partners; propel conversations by posing and responding to questions that relate the current discussion to broader themes or larger ideas; actively incorporate others into the discussion; clarify, verify, or challenge ideas and conclusions; respond thoughtfully to diverse perspectives, summarize points of agreement and disagreement, and, when warranted, qualify or justify views and understanding and make new connections in light of the evidence and reasoning presented

Standards Addressed:

Common Core Standards for English Language Arts

    Initiate and participate effectively in a range of collaborative discussions (one-on-one, in groups, and teacher-led) with diverse partners on grades 9–10 topics, texts, and issues, building on others’ ideas and expressing their own clearly and persuasively.
    Evaluate a speaker’s point of view, reasoning, and use of evidence and rhetoric, identifying any fallacious reasoning or exaggerated or distorted evidence.
    Present information, findings, and supporting evidence clearly, concisely, and logically such that listeners can follow the line of reasoning and the organization, development, substance, and style are appropriate to purpose, audience, and task.

Instruction details:

The Unit
The focus of this 10-day unit was nationalism, World War I, and transformation. It covered the Russian Revolution, communism, the collapse of Imperial China, and nationalism in India/Southwest Asia and the Ottoman Empire. The essential questions for the unit were: What were the causes and impacts of a global depression? and What are the circumstances of violent conflicts and how have they affected countries/specific groups? This unit was sandwiched between two much longer units, both including literary texts—the Industrial Revolution (students read The Jungle) and the Rise and Fall of Fascism/World War II Book Club (students read Maus, Maus II, Night, Slaughterhouse V, The Diary of Anne Frank). This shorter unit was couched in historical points of view and first-person narrative. It was taught in March, toward the end of this two-year-long curriculum during which students explored historical concepts from the dawn of man to the present and literature written during or about the time periods. The lesson in the video occurred on the third day of the unit.

Before the Video
Students began the unit by learning about the “isms” that caused the Great War (nationalism, imperialism, and militarism). They explored different kinds of military strategies, did some mapping, looked at photographs, and viewed a clip of trench warfare from the film Paths of Glory. The object was for students to understand the context of World War1 through the lens of a soldier. Their homework was to read and annotate two primary documents (one of which was “A Suffolk Farmhand at Gallipoli”) and submit via email an open-ended question for the following day’s lesson.

During the Video
This lesson began with a “Do Now,” in which students took out their homework templates with guiding questions and set and shared personal goals for themselves for a Socratic seminar. Ms. Male and Ms. McElveen reviewed the guidelines and expectations and introduced the student-generated open-ended questions that would guide a Socratic seminar. Led by two student facilitators, the class discussed the assigned readings and the historical content explored thus far in the unit. They shared ideas, responded to questions aloud and in writing, cited evidence to support their arguments, took notes, and actively listened as others contributed. The Socratic seminar ended with students reflecting on their own participation and their peers’ feedback.

After the Video
During the rest of the unit, students learned about the Treaty of Versailles—the events that led to it and its effects on European powers. Following was a mini-unit that focused on speeches and rhetoric.

Teacher Prep
Ms. Male and Ms. McElveen identified the source documents and media for student review.

Prior Knowledge
The foundation for this lesson was established in the first year of the two-year-long Humanities course when students were first introduced to the meaning, structure, and methodology behind the Socratic seminar. In order to participate, students needed to know how to cite evidence; craft appropriate questions (that invite multiple answers); understand the difference between analytical, interpretative, and factual questions; and have experience charting. On the day of the lesson, students needed to have brought with them a personal goal, an open-ended question, and a piece of evidence.

Differentiated Instruction
At the start of the unit, Ms. Male and Ms. McElveen used photographs and mapping to engage the kinesthetic and visual learners. The different roles assigned to students in the pre-seminar lit circles catered to differing needs of students (such as the travel tracer, who tracks what happens in reading by drawing pictures—ideal for a kinesthetic learner.) The teachers used the gradual release of responsibility model to scaffold for students who needed help with annotating by 1) modeling the process; 2) doing it together with students; 3) having students lead the process, and offering support where needed; and 4) having students work independently. They used a similar method for teaching students how to lead the Socratic seminar (beginning the process the first year).

For this lesson, Ms. Male and Ms. McElveen provided guiding questions for the reading homework assignment and had students set personal goals to support development of executive functioning skills. By writing down their goals, students were held accountable and could refer back to their goals during seminar. The teachers used the “It says, I say…” graphic organizer to help students ask and respond to interpretative questions. Throughout the year, the teachers incorporated many supports to foster student accountability: student-written and signed contracts, color-coded deadline calendars, and student-accessible hanging folders containing work from previous lessons (when students missed class, it was up to them to get the work they missed).

Group Interaction
Students were seated in a circle for the Socratic seminar and engaged in whole-group discussion. Two students were assigned the role of moderator. Ms. Male and Ms. McElveen chose their seats strategically—placing themselves between students they knew would need additional support. To help students “warm up” and build confidence for participation in a Socratic seminar, Ms. Male and Ms. McElveen grouped students into small “lit circles” of four to eight students each. Each student had a very prescribed role (e.g., discussion director, literary luminary, vocabulary enricher, the summarizer, travel tracer, connector). Throughout the year, they modified the seating arrangements based on their objectives. Sometimes they incorporated a “fishbowl seminar,” where students sat in two circles, one inside and one outside. The teachers could manipulate the circles in different ways. (For example, the inside circle held quieter student, while the outside circle held those students who tended to dominate conversations. This encouraged the students in the inner circle to feel empowered to speak out more. Each student in the outer circle was paired with a student on the inner circle to coach and give advice.)

Resources and Tools

  • Smart Board
  • A Suffolk Farmhand at Gallipoli by Leonard Thompson (excerpted from Akenfield: Portrait of an English Village by Ronald Blythe)
  • The German Army Marches Through Brussels by Richard Harding Davis
  • Song: “Christmas in the Trenches” by John McCutcheon
  • Film: Paths of Glory
  • WWI images of soldiers
  • Handout: “It Says, I Say…” by Millennium Brooklyn High School Humanities team


Formative Assessment
The open-ended questions generated by students for the Socratic seminar were submitted to the teachers for review the day before and served as a way to assess student understanding. During the seminar, Ms. Male and Ms. McElveen often got out of their seats to walk around the circle to see if students were meeting their goals, who was seeking evidence and from where, who was capable of independent work, and who needed support.

Student Self-Assessment
Students reflected on their own participation in the seminar through three self-assessment questions. They received peer feedback at the end of the seminar through “shout-outs” during which students recognized each other for positive contributions.

Summative Assessment
Ms. Male and Ms. McElveen gave students an exam at the end of the unit using mock questions from the New York State Regents Exam.

Series Directory

Reading & Writing in the Disciplines


Produced by WGBH Educational Foundation. 2015.
  • Closed Captioning
  • ISBN: 1-57680-906-4