Teachers who deal with struggling students every day know how critical the Three R’s are to build student engagement in the classroom. These Three R’s: Relationships Relevance and Rigor are the foundation for deep and authentic learning. What better way to do this than to engage in Socratic dialogue in the classroom ?
Alex Rawson and Paul Kramar teach in the Harwood Community Learning Center (HCLC). This off campus program offers students the opportunity to tune their education to their particular learning needs. Students in HCLC are often those individuals who have found that the regular classroom does not meet their particular interests and/or strengths for a variety of reasons. For many of these students, the three R’s have been missing in the regular classroom; these students have never developed a caring relationship with a teacher nor do they see any connection between what they are asked to learn and their world outside the classroom. Because they are often the “disaffected students” they have never been challenged to work with scholarship and rigor. A vicious circle of distrust, disappointment and failure is often the end result-but not at HCLC.
The teacher’s role in the HCLC program is not that of “information giver” but that of a facilitator, guide and co-learner. This allows for learning that is cooperative rather than competitive. It encourages students to participate and engage with others in academic tasks; this is a significant change from the traditional approach to the independent study format where each student works alone on his or her own projects. Implementing Socratic Dialogues in which all students grapple with an issue which is meaningful and relevant to them is a natural way to incorporate the Three R’s into teaching and learning in this environment.
Alex and Paul invited me to come into their morning and afternoon classes to introduce the students to Socratic dialogue. We first began with some group building games and activities that encouraged communication and active listening. “What do these activities have to do with working together in class?” we asked the students. “Well, if we are going to be talking in a group about some important questions we need to learn to listen to each other,” replied Felix. “We have to pay attention to peoples’ body language as people do not always say what they mean,” Wes said. We talked with students about what “respect at the table “ looked like, and we ended the discussion with what was a new thought for many of the students:” None of us is as smart as all of us.”
The following week Alex, Paul and I facilitated a Socrates Café with the students. They chose the question, “Why Do We Lie?” from a list of questions that they brainstormed. Alex and Paul asked them to write for five minutes to get their ideas down on paper, and then we began the conversation
The dialogue was personal, probing and powerful as students shared some of their individual experiences as to when they have lied and/or how they felt when they have been lied to. It was a new experience for these students to learn in community with each other and to learn from one another; the adults in the room facilitated and did not direct the conversation. The Socrates Café experience worked to build relationships, and it was entirely relevant to students’ everyday lives. As students practice classroom dialogue they become more capable of working with more rigor and presence in conversation.
The last day before Christmas vacation, Alex wrapped the “Three R’s” up in an exciting activity and gave it to the students as a present and as a challenge. He prepared a creative lesson based on the movie V for Vendetta that was intellectually rigorous, emotionally challenging and personally relevant to today’s world. In addition to posting on the wall some of the timeless and timely questions that the movie raises (ex. When, if ever, is the use of violence justified), Alex made the movie a sensory experience for the students; he brought in roses, hot and cold towels, and current events clips to make the movie come alive- literally. For students who spend many hours on screens each day, the props and the techniques Alex employed deepened students’ engagement with the film and it became and interactive experience. The amount of work that Alex put into this lesson was not lost on the students. “I can’t believe that he put so much time and effort into this class for us, Sam exclaimed. “He really cares about us and our learning.”
After the film ended, Alex asked the students to write in their journals about one of the timeless and timely questions raised in the film. The students sustained an intense discussion for one hour about questions such as “ What is the difference between a terrorist and a freedom fighter?” “ When, if ever, is it okay to lie? “Is torture ever justified?” The students talked right up until the minute before the time to leave for Christmas vacation, and some of them wanted to stay and continue the conversation.
Socratic dialogue in grounded in and strengthens the Three R’s. It builds new student/student and student/teacher relationships based on trust, curiosity and mutual inquiry. When teachers plan lessons that encourage students to uncover the links to their daily lives, students discover the relevance of “school”. Finally, as they become more skilled in asking probing and clarifying questions to delve deeply into an issue, a film or a text, they can work with precision and rigor to analyze new material.
Socratic dialogue is not just for the “Honors” students; it is pedagogy for ALL students. If you have any doubts, come and watch the students at HCLC in action.