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Leading Great Seminar Discussions

by Andrew J. Zwerneman

 

Many teachers lack clarity about what kinds of questions to ask, what strategies work best for each genre, and how to distinguish between energetic seminar leadership and didactic instruction.

(This is an excerpt from a post at Cana Academy.)

All across the country, there is a growing interest in reading Great Books and teaching them Socratically. At the same time, seminar discussion, the classroom model most Great Books and Socratic practitioners aspire to, is highly under-informed. Many teachers lack clarity about what kinds of questions to ask, what strategies work best for each genre, and how to distinguish between energetic seminar leadership and didactic instruction.

With that in mind, I have assembled eight tips, plus some great resources, to fuel your seminar leadership, foster better discussions among your students, and guide them to excellence as readers of classic texts.

#1. Prepare thoroughly.
This is not just the first of eight tips; this is, hands down, the most important. Begin with this obvious but critical step: Read the assignment at least twice and, on at least one of those occasions, mark up your text. Once your text is well marked, brainstorm on the reading. Then, make a plan for the class. In my observation of hundreds of teachers leading seminars, it is clear that most do not enter the classroom with a clear plan.

  1. What specifically should the students learn from the reading for that day?
  2. What can you reasonably accomplish in the time allotted?
  3. Most importantly, what is the right pattern for the discussion at hand?

By pattern, I mean the specific strategic approach you are going to adopt for the reading under examination. That there are different strategic patterns may not have occurred to you, but it should make sense. After all, genres vary. So, too, should strategies for teaching them.

Here’s an example of a pattern: If you are leading a discussion on a short story, try the pattern called Two-by-Two. Under this strategy, you and your students will discuss two pages at a time, focusing on all the physical, psychological, and dramatic details packed into that specific part of the story. When the students arrive at the end of the story, something wondrous will have happened: They will have accrued a rich and deep collection of vital details, and in that very body of details will lie the meaning of the story. That is paydirt in the world of seminar discussions!

For a work of nonfiction, try the Arguments: find them first, then evaluate pattern. Here, you will guide the students to carefully unpack the author’s line of argumentation. When they have that reasoning in their grasp, they can then evaluate how well the argument illuminates the relevant sphere of reality— some aspect of politics, say, or friendship, or how we know what we know, or some other important topic. When your students see reality more clearly for the light the author shines, then you’ve hit paydirt again!

Choosing the right pattern will make for a more fruitful discussion. Above all, it will help you develop good questions around which to focus the seminar discussion. With great questions and focus in place, you will optimize what your students can learn and what you can reasonably accomplish that day.

Once the plan is in place, a great discussion is just around the corner!

Tips #2-#8
See original article located at www.canaacademy.org/blog/8-tips-for-leading-great-seminar-discussions.


Andrew J. Zwerneman serves as a master teacher and president of Cana Academy.

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