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Reading & Writing in the Disciplines

Designing the Classroom to Support Understanding

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Kristen Ferrales explains how she intentionally designs her classroom to create an effective learning environment.

Teacher: Kristin Ferrales

School: The Urban Assembly School for Law and Justice, New York, NY

Grade: 11

Discipline: History (Global Research)

Lesson Topic: Socratic Seminar: Lasting impacts of the Haitian Revolution

Lesson Month: March

Number of Students: 21

Other: This is a college-preparatory high school with a focus on legal studies and debate.

Featured Lesson’s Student Goals:

  • Content objectives – Evaluate the successes and failures of the Haitian Revolution on both a long- and short-term scale
  • Literacy/language objectives – Listen and respond to differing perspectives on the impacts of the Haitian Revolution
  • Engagement/interaction objectives – Push each other to tease out connections to the text and challenge or support each other’s understandings and analyses of the text

Standards Addressed:

Common Core State Standards for English Language Arts & Literacy in History/Social Studies, Science, and Technical Subjects

    Cite specific textual evidence to support analysis of primary and secondary sources, connecting insights gained from specific details to an understanding of the text as a whole.
    Determine the central ideas or information of a primary or secondary source; provide an accurate summary that makes clear the relationships among the key details and ideas.
    Initiate and participate effectively in a range of collaborative discussions (one-on-one, in groups, and teacher-led) with diverse partners on grades 11–12 topics, texts, and issues, building on others’ ideas and expressing their own clearly and persuasively.
    Adapt speech to a variety of contexts and tasks, demonstrating a command of formal English when indicated or appropriate.

Instruction Details:

The Unit
The topic of this 16-day unit was the age of revolution and was the fourth unit of the year. The lesson was a Socratic seminar on the lasting impacts of the Haitian Revolution and occurred at the end of the unit.

Before the Video
For the four to five weeks leading up to the lesson, students studied the French and Haitian Revolutions. During the last couple of weeks, they compared the two revolutions and why some people say the Haitian Revolution was a failure. The week before, students took a content exam in which they wrote paragraphs about the successes and the failures of the French and Haitian Revolutions. Students also wrote a quick summary using at least four vocabulary words that were important during the time. For the Socratic seminar, students read the article “Why Is Haiti so Poor?,” which had a series of embedded questions and a vocabulary sheet. They took about a week and a half to read through the text and select a couple of the questions that interested them. They developed their own discussion questions that they wanted to explore together as a class. During the previous class, they reviewed the rubric for discussion so students already knew what a good discussion looked like going into the day.

During the Video
Ms. Ferrales distributed the rubric and procedure as students entered the room. She started the class with a “Do Now” activity. Students used their copies of “Why Is Haiti so Poor?” to answer these questions: What big ideas stood out to you when you read this text? What questions were raised for you/in what ways did this article challenge your thinking? She then did a reminder mini-lesson on protocols (e.g., focus on the text and the ideas that come out of the text; converse, don’t share out; use precise language, speak in specifics and examples, not generalities and hypotheticals; tie ideas back to the text; disagreements are about ideas, not people; and these ideas are still relevant in our world today). With their desks arranged in a circle, students participated in a Socratic seminar. Ms. Ferrales took notes while students facilitated the discussion, which focused on the use of evidence and ability to dig into ideas. Ms. Ferrales redirected as needed with guiding questions. Students discussed whether having freedom is more important than having stability in a country. Students spent the closing 10 minutes of class responding to the reflection questions, evaluating themselves on the rubric, and sharing out.

After the Video
For homework, students expanded on their initial ideas and continued their classroom conversation by posting to the online discussion board. They also wrote a culminating 10-page research paper on a global history topic of their choosing.

Teacher Prep
Ms. Ferrales chose the article, the goal/outcome of the Socratic seminar, and what steps to put into place to get there. She also set the desks up in a circle and made sure she had enough copies for everybody.

Prior Knowledge
Students needed to know how to annotate a text by underlining important details, writing questions in the margins for things on which they need clarification, and making connections to other things they’ve read in class. They had also done a lot of analysis of primary source documents and knew how to think about and explain the significance of events. Students were also familiar with how a Socratic seminar works.

Differentiated Instruction
Ms. Ferrales embedded comprehension questions in the text for struggling readers to make sure they understood what they were reading. She participated in the class discussion and used guiding questions if she needed to redirect students. To promote an environment where students felt okay to take risks, Ms. Ferrales created questions with multiple answers; neither answer was wrong. Ms. Ferrales posted resources on the walls of her classroom: one wall with accountable talk signs and quotes from philosophers, thinkers, and activists; another wall with resources that changed with each unit. She also posted content understandings that students should be able to meet by the end of the unit, cause and effect words, and sentence starters. Ms. Ferrales also had a word wall with new vocabulary. Students also have a vocabulary glossary with them at all times.

Group Interaction
The desks were set up in a circle so students could see and hear each other easily. Ms. Ferrales sat so students would feel like they could take ownership over the discussion. Students also called on each other during the discussion. To encourage and support risk taking, students did a lot of small-group discussion throughout the year and became comfortable sharing controversial ideas. All students are held to the expectation that they are respecting each other’s voices.

Resources and Tools

  • Global Research: Discussion Rubric handout
  • Global Research Discussion Questions handout
  • “Why Is Haiti So Poor?” by Bob Corbett
  • Vocabulary List


Formative Assessment
During the discussion, Ms. Ferrales looked for precision in language, specifically when students stated what they agreed or disagreed with. She also noted when students made a reference to the text and exactly what they said. Ms. Ferrales used a discussion rubric to assess student comments; students received a grade based on the rubric.

Student Self-Assessment
Students evaluated themselves in a brief reflection and shared out to the class. They made note of good analytical statements, good use of evidence, and good accountable talk. While students discussed, Ms. Ferrales took notes on their comments.

Impact of Assessment
Students had struggled previously with making direct connections to the text; here, Ms. Ferrales felt they did a much better job of referencing the article and pulling out quotes and talking about what the quotes meant to them.

Series Directory

Reading & Writing in the Disciplines


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