Text Quest: Gamechanging Seminars

Leveling the playing field as we change the game!


On Tuesday we talked about ways to incorporate role playing game dice into your warm-up routines to transform any traditional turn and talk activity into an interactive choose your own adventure type story. In yesterday‘s post, we took the next steps from our lucky dice roll warm up and jumped headlong into a classwide #Hashtag Hunt. And today? We are tackling the mother of all classroom challenges: the Socratic Seminar!
Wait — we’re making a game out of the Socratic Seminar?
Heck yeah!
You know the Socratic Seminar. It’s the very pinnacle of the student-centered classroom, yet it remains one of the most fear-inspiring approaches in all of education. After all, what well-meaning administrator hasn’t encouraged their faculty to “try a Socratic Seminar?” What teacher among us hasn’t gone white with fear at the prospect of giving our students the proverbial keys to the car before we’re even sure that they can drive it? And what student in the world hasn’t felt an all-too familiar and deep-seated flash of panic like that described in this satirical article from The Onion, with a headline reading “Oh God, Teacher Arranged Desks in a Giant Circle”:

“OVERLAND PARK, KS—Appearing stunned and unsettled as they entered her classroom Wednesday, students from Ms. Frederickson’s fourth-period social studies class were reportedly overcome with panic upon discovering that, oh God, all the desks had been arranged in a giant circle. ‘I have no idea what’s going to happen here, but it can’t be good,’ said a visibly shaken Katie Wahl, 11, who according to reports began steeling herself for whatever god-awful group project, class discussion, or sharing of personal experiences the sixth-grade teacher might have in store for them.”

Yes, the Socratic Seminar can be scary. But fear not, brave teachers. With a simple $2.99 iPad app ($9.99 for the full version), you too can change the game in your classroom.
Behold the power of Equity Maps!

Equity Maps is an app for the iPad designed to help facilitators keep track of who all was talking in class and when. Imagine a Fitbit for class participation: teachers start by using any one of the blank seating arrangement templates to assign individual user icons (male or female) for each of their students. It saves rosters so you’ll only ever have to do a bulk upload once per year. Once you’re done adding session participants, you can click and drag any of these icons anywhere in the seating arrangement to show where each student is seated and start your class’s Socratic Seminar.

Push the session record button, and the app will start keeping track of the class dialogue patterns using a built-in stopwatch timer. As each new student speaks, you simply tap the corresponding student’s icon and the app will automatically connect a line between each student and the one who spoke just before them — exactly like if you were drawing a spider web in a printed notebook. If you’ve got AppleTV or a connection dongle, you can even project the session to your overhead in real time so that students can watch the spider web take shape before their very eyes.

While the computer-drawn spider web map is super neat to look at, it’s in the aftermath of each session where Equity Maps becomes a can’t-miss addition to any classroom. In addition to providing the visual map of how balanced the conversation may have been during that particular session, the app also gives you the ability to hit the play button so that you can watch a quick video playback to see the conversation web pattern unfolded in real time. With little effort, students can get a clear sense of who’s talking, for how long, and when.

The app also features a series of point-and-click look-for items, so that teachers can easily push just one button to generate individual student reports with detailed items like who’s citing specific examples from a text, asking great questions, or most effectively piggybacking off of earlier comments to drive the dialogue to deeper analysis and higher order thinking questions.

But my absolute favorite feature of the Equity Maps comes in the form of a feature it calls feedback frames. Feedback frames are automatically generated at the conclusion of each session, which offers a clear visual representation of how successful the overall seminar was in relation to the equity voice distribution as it was shared and fostered throughout the conversation.

I followed up with Equity Maps creator, Dave Nelson (@EquityMaps), and he explained:

“The Equity Quotient is a way of looking equity based on both time spoken and times spoken; we calculate the Gini coefficient of times spoken and time spoken and calculate the average based on 67% from Time Spoken, and 33% from Times Spoken. We’ve tried to create a way of looking at a combination of both with more emphasis on shared time.”

Since the data is so clear, succinct, and visually appealing, it makes for a fantastic start for the following spider web discussion to present the class with the screenshot findings from their previous effort so that students can reflect on where they succeeded and fell short in order to set goals for themselves and work towards higher levels of performance with each new seminar.

Talk about a game changer.

Likewise, for teachers like me who are keen on using small group “team vs team” scoring incentives — you can easily divide your students into two larger groups to conclude a class period with two rounds of a Socratic Seminar, with conversation in the inner circle and silent note-taking in the outer circle. Drawing once again from our Huck Finn inspired unit theme, the two teams with the lowest point totals in the day’s #Hashtag Hunt will be the first to enter the inner circle (“the rapids”). These students begin the Seminar in the rough waters in which they will take turns delving deeper into a specific thematic question of the teacher’s choice.The two teams with the highest point totals in the day’s #Hashtag Hunt will begin the Seminar in the outer circle (“the ferry”), which offers smooth sailing as they get to sit back and take notes quietly while their peers join in the first round of dialogue.

At the midpoint of the Socratic Seminar, the two groups will trade roles to conclude the activity. And naturally, we’ll start tomorrow’s class off by showing all teams their Equity Maps so they can see how they fared and how they can improve.

Tomorrow, we’ll wrap up this week’s series on low-prep gamified classroom pedagogy with a closer look at the value of award ceremonies and scorekeeping cards.

Author: John

John Meehan (@MeehanEDU) is an English teacher and school instructional coach at Bishop O’Connell High School in Arlington, Virginia. He began his teaching career in 2010 as a career switcher through The New Teacher Project, after spending five years working in social media and event marketing. He is a 2017 ASCD Emerging Leader, and an alumnus of the 2016-2018 Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation Teacher Advisory Council. In 2016, he was named one of Arlington, Virginia’s “40 Under 40” by the Leadership Center for Excellence. He is a past presenter and regular attendee at educational conferences throughout the United States, including the annual conference for National Catholic Education Association, ASCD Empower19, and the Play Like a Champion Today: Character Education Through Sports summer conference at the University of Notre Dame. He’s an avid runner who’s completed more than three dozen marathons, half marathons, long-distance road relays, mud runs, and obstacle course races. John lives in Silver Spring, Maryland.

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