Socratic Seminar for the Covid Classroom

As teachers struggle to navigate the new landscape of the Covid classroom, I’m reminded of a Socratic seminar model I used years ago while teaching AP history and government. It blended instruction in both full class and smaller seminars in way that could be a useful model to decrease the density of today’s classroom.

What drove my seminar model was PBL approach with weekly research tasks – though I had yet to hear the term “project-based learning.” My experience using this approach back in the 1980-90’s convinced me that advanced placement can be much more productive than the traditional AP model of lecture, read, memorize and test.

While this seminar approach produced great results on AP exams, its prime outcome was fostering students’ responsibility for themselves as learners. Covid-19 is upending our traditional classroom models. Instead of simply trying to find news ways to deliver the same stuff, we should leverage this disruption to refocus teaching and learning in ways that engage and motivate both students and teachers.

The Socratic Seminar Model

As we look for ways to blend virtual learning and meet live in smaller classes – this model could be modified by substituting an online session for the full class large group. Seminar size and frequency are adaptable to the setting.

Class size typically ran between 24 – 36 students. All students in the class would meet one day a week in a large group session. This might be used for unit testing, or to introduce or conclude a seminar cycle with a lecture or full group discussion. The large group was also divided into 4 seminar groups of 6-9 students. Each seminar would meet with me one day per week. Thus each student met one day per week in seminar and another day in large group. During the remainder of their week, students worked independently or with their seminar group in preparation for the upcoming assignment. Today, we would call that “flipping the classroom.”

Seminar assignments built off the large group session and were project driven. Students in the seminar were required to present and defend their finding to their peers. I sat “outside the circle” as an observer – occasionally tossing probing questions into the group.

Of course, there were many weeks that were modified because of holidays and other interruptions – but you get the idea. Our high school was on traditional 8 period schedule. These AP classes were taught in a double period configuration of about 95 minutes for both the seminar classes or large group sessions.

My first experience was teaching one semester of AP US History while one of my colleagues was on leave. I focused on essential questions that fostered greater depth and relevance. So when we studied the Founding Fathers we didn’t focus on “Should the Constitution be ratified?” Our seminar revolved around a more enduring question – “How powerful should the national government be?” For more on that approach, see my post “Essential Questions in American History: The Great Debates.” 

After my semester of APUSH, I settled into my primary AP assignment – one semester of AP American Government / Politics and one semester of AP Comparative Government. There I used the seminar approach to give students guided experience in research, critical thinking, collaboration and presentation. 

Visualize the typical American government lesson. Teacher standing up front asking students to follow along as they go over the diagram of “how a bill becomes a law.”

Contrast that with one of my AP US Government seminars on the same topic.

Congress and the Lobbyists
This extended seminar will investigate the relationships between Congress and the lobbyists. You will develop an investigative report which will ultimately answer the question “Does Congress represent the needs of its public constituency (the electorate) or its financial constituency (its contributors)? Weekly seminar abstracts will be used to prepare Tabloid TV-style PowerPoint report in support of your investigation. To see the full seminar assignment click here.  

Students were assigned a member of Congress who sat on one of the major committees. Their task over the next few weeks included researching and developing the following:

  • Demographic / political profile of their legislator’s elective constituency.
  • Profile of their financial contributors.
  • Committee jurisdiction and major lobbyists.
  • Voting record on legislation of interest to their elective constituency and financial contributors.
  • Their answer to the seminar question with supportive reasoning.  
  • Presentation and reflection

Teaching Historical Thinking Skills

Teachers are looking for resources for online instruction. So I am reposting lessons from my Social Studies Methods Course at the University of Portland’s School of Education. See original post here.

Our class begins with a review of the Sam Wineburg reading and TEDEd flipped lesson Who is the historian in your classroom? (That will also provide a chance to discuss the efficacy of flipping content.  What are the challenges and opportunities for that approach?)

Today we begin our study of historical thinking skills based on the work of Sam Wineburg and the Stanford History Education Group (SHEG). We will focus on three key historical thinking skills – Sourcing, Contextualization, Corroboration. See Historical Thinking Chart  (pdf in English and Spanish at SHEG).

We will get inspired by some SHEG lessons from their collections Reading Like a Historian and Beyond the Bubble.

Here’s what a Google From looks like: Photograph – Zulu Chief
Here are some student designed SHEG-inspired lessons that are delivered using Google Forms
  1. Reconstruction Cartoon – Thomas Nast
  2. Photograph – “War is Hell” 
  3. Film clip – Charlie Chaplin film clip
  4. Political Cartoon – Votes for Women

Click image to go to curated collection of historical sources to practice using Google Forms | Source

Design a mini lesson based on one of the historical thinking skills in a Google Form and embed into your next post. 

Google form lesson should include:

  1. Title
  2. Document to be considered – image or video (or short text passage)
  3. Archival source of document (be sure it’s in public domain)
  4. One or more questions for user to answer. 
  5. Instructional goal

Then get embed the Google form in post (more instructions below). Be sure your blog post has: 

  1. Title for your mini-lesson. Why not make it catchy? 
  2. Featured image (could be created with your archival photo)
  3. Embedded Google form
  4. Brief reflection on the mini lesson, historical skill or use of Google form in classroom


More tips on using Google forms here

How to get an embed code for your Google form

How to HTML Snippets to embed your Google form into WordPress post. Note in this example I begin by getting the embed code from a Padlet. Once you have the any embed code on your “clipboard” you can use HTML Snippets in WordPress

Curating Historical Content

Teachers are looking for resources for online instruction. So I am reposting lessons from my Social Studies Methods Course at the University of Portland’s School of Education. See original post here.

Most materials are in the public domain if they were produced before 1923. I see this as roughly equivalent to everything that happened in the world up to and including World War I! If you’re looking for newspaper articles in Chronicling America, for example, you will note that coverage ends in 1922. 

Primary sources produced by the federal government are normally in the public domain both before and after the magic copyright date of 1923. That explains why we as teachers can use the fabulous oral history interviews of former slaves collected between 1936 and 1938 by workers from the Federal Writers’ Project.

Focusing your search using a search operator. []

Image Detective Activity (inspired by Crop It lesson)

Being able to find and curate historical source material is a foundation of historical thinking. This activity merges three instructional goals: finding / curating historical sources, looking closely at historical sources and using WordPress tools to add images and hyperlinks. It will help students learn how to find material for future lesson design activities. 

  1. Find 3 historical images – use these historical archive sites
  2. For each image: provide full image with citation in hyperlink back to source
  3. Then add a of crop area of each image to show one of the following clues (add clue in the image caption) Tips on how to crop an image
  4. Put all content into a post. Give it a clever title. Include a featured image.
  • who or what this image is about.
  • where this takes place.
  • when this happened or was created.
  • what is the creator’s point of view or purpose.
  • something I have a question about

Example: Image with two crops

African American Soldiers in an Automobile Source
When? It’s an upside down 1919 NYS license plate.
I think they are returning Black WWI soldiers in a parade.
These Black soldiers are being honored in a parade. Knowing 1919 is in the Jim Crow / KKK era,
I wonder what else faced them back in America?

In class practice images. Choose one. Add to a sample post. Include source hyperlink and crop with comment. 

  1. Smartly dressed couple seated on an 1886-model bicycle for two 1886. Source
  2. The 8th Avenue trolley, NYC, sharing the street with horse-drawn produce wagon and an open automobile 1904 Source
  3. Automobile helped through sandy wash onto mesa 1911. Source
  4. Women’s Machine Gun Squad Police Reserves, New York City 1918 Source
Sample student work from this assignment
Notice some of the fashion choices of these women. For example, all but one of these women have chosen to wear pants rather than skirts. Do you think this was a normal clothing choice for women in the 1920s? Could their outfits be related to the social statement they are making?
This photo of a bakery is taken in 1922.
The languages on sign include Armenian, Ladino, English, Greek and Russian.

How to Teach Online

I teach two courses in the School of Education at the University of Portland – a social studies methods class in the fall and an ed tech methods class in the spring. Content differs, but the approach is the same.

This spring, the COVID-19 pandemic hit and mid course I made the transition to online without missing a beat. Here’s two elements that made the “live-to-online” transition possible. They were core principles when the course was taught face-to-face and they were even more critical when we moved fully online.

  1. We utilized a student centered, project-based approach. Students are doers – actively engaged in design, implementation, presentation and reflection.
  2. The course was organized around a WordPress (WP) site that created a public forum where the students and I posted all our work. This changes the typical class dynamic from students doing work for the teacher to a class where students sharing their learning with the world.
Teaching Online: Course Website

Let’s take a look at the website – I’ll begin with social studies methods class. Here’s a quick look at layout – basic features and navigation from the public viewers’ point of view. With a few minor changes it will support online teaching this coming fall.

Teaching Historical Thinking Skills / PBL Online

In this video I share few lessons from Social Studies Methods class to show sequence and scaffolding to support the our project-based learning approach. I want my students to continually explore the frontier of what they know and don’t know about themselves as learners. So I start with some easy tasks and I become less helpful as they learn to increasingly figure things out themselves. You can go directly to both lessons here: Class 2: Curating Historical Content and Class 3: Historical Thinking Skills.

Harnessing Student Creativity Online

The four key components to any lesson are: content, process, product and evaluation. In the traditional classroom, the teacher defines the scope of each of these components. A student centered approach means they can make some choices. With the proper scaffolding, students can tap into their own creativity as they define the scope of some of the lesson components. This video show how I open the door to harnessing student creativity. It focuses on a lesson from my spring ed tech methods class: Class 7: Where I’m From: Telling Digital Stories.

Leveraging WordPress as a Learning Management System

Most Learning Management Systems (LMS) are closed silos of content. I want a public facing course that forces me to reveal my teaching to the world and inspires students to do the same. I never do any direct instruction on WP – but rely on a library of videos I’ve creative to teach students WP basics – and we add skills along the way.

This video will give you a look at the WP dashboard from my edtech methods class and some of the native features that a great for managing your course.

Note: I also want to put in a plug for Reclaim Hosting – where these courses are hosted. It’s a fantastic service designed by and for educators that offers teachers and students domains and web hosting that they own and control. They have very affordable plans and their support teams will answer your questions in language you can understand.

To close, I’ll share some comments from students that attest
to the success of our approach:
Student in Spring 2020 Edtech class

“Professor Pappas ran the course very smoothly and had no problems when we had to transition to online learning. I liked that we were able to use lots of creativity in this class, it was super fun to see what everyone came up with. The assignments were manageable and insightful. I thoroughly enjoyed the website that we used throughout the whole course. It was easy to navigate and I liked that everything was in one place!”

Student in Fall 2019 Social Studies Methods class

“At first I wasn’t sure whether or not I would like the project based atmosphere of this class, but it pushed me to synthesize the content that we were learning about. I learned a lot about how to deliver a lesson to a class as well as I got lots of inspiration and content to use in my own classroom as well, which has been well received by my students. Peter does a really good job of guiding his students to do their best. I didn’t realize how beneficial my portfolio of blog posts would be as well.”

Email from a former student who had just landed her first teaching job

“The school I will be teaching at prides themselves on their use of technology in the classroom and asked me about my background in technology. I sent them my author’s link to all the projects I did with your – and they were very impressed. Your class was probably one of my favorites at UP because it was so practical, collaborative, and student centered.”

Pre-Twitter Racist Rant

Race-baiting before social media? Here’s an excerpt from “Don’t Be a Sucker” – a short film which warns of the dangers of promoting racism in America. It was produced by the United States Department of War and released in 1943 (and adapted as a slightly shorter version in 1947.)

This dramatized film uses the experience of a Hungarian American to warn against the dangers of persecuting minorities. Reacting to a hate-filled political speech in an American city, he recalls how similar speeches led to Nazi persecution of minority groups and the eventual destruction of German society. The film was also made to make the case for the desegregation of the United States armed forces. It is held for preservation by the U.S. National Archives. Full 23 min version here.

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