Book Clubs, Socratic Seminars & Talking About Reading

Most of our readings this week focused on ideas of reading groups — various different ways of organizing people around the discussion of something that they had read. Although I like the How People Learn reading, I also have to admit that I found this week’s readings a welcome break.  Having multiple short takes on various ways that people connect to and through reading felt like a breath of fresh air.

Dempsey’s article, the most recent, focused on new forms that book clubs and reading groups are taking in libraries. She comments that

Like the format of the book, discussion groups are evolving and reaching new markets. What hasn’t changed is their inherent charisma—readers love to talk about what they’ve read.

Even as someone who really loves reading — someone who studied creative writing and literature as an undergraduate, I have to admit that I’ve been out of the book-group-loop for a few years, and so some of the ideas in this piece were new to me. I couldn’t help but think that an ill-fated book club that I’d been involved with could perhaps have lived on if we had actually adopted some of the approaches mentioned in Dempsey’s overview.  All of our book club members loved to read, and loved to connect with each other, but we were all also insanely busy between work, studies, wedding-planning, new babies and other big life-shifts.

The various book groups that Dempsey includes offer up ways to discuss asynchronously (via online forums and other mechanisms), a focus on “no pressure,” and also an openness to alternative venues — sometimes these groups meet in cafes or bars rather than at the library itself.

One type of reading group mentioned in Hoffert’s article that was appealing to me was the “thematic” book group. In some cases, members read the same book at the same time… and all of the books they read over several months fit into a set theme. But, in other versions of a thematic group, member actually read different books that coalesced around a shared theme, and then discussed them.  Maybe it’s just the time-crunched grad student in me, but this idea really struck me as something I’d enjoy.

The possibilities of theme-oriented discussion leave extra space for people to bring their personal lenses/experiences into the exchange. Another unique bonus, however, seems to be how this sort of group could clue others in to particular titles or other books on a theme that they might also want to read. These potential readers would have the benefit of understanding a bit about the topic and hearing a little about the book from another member who’d read it in its entirety. Although recommender systems and reviews on Amazon sometimes jibe with my tastes, I’d much rather learn about a potential “to-read” book this way.

Although the reading by Metzger was very different in tone and approach, I also found it pretty intriguing. Metzger, a high school English teacher, was struggling with just how to really boost her students’ abilities to truly pick apart, analyze and comprehend various works of literature.

When students search for hidden meanings, they assume that there is one single answer that teachers or authors are withholding from them

In her article, Metzger describes a very specific, methodical way that she applied the idea of the Socratic Seminar as a technique for both discussion and for being able to get into/open up the thought processes that students were going through as they were reading and making meaning:

I needed to know what students were thinking as they read…Because reading is invisible, I was at a loss.

Metzger defines the Socratic Seminar process as “Noncompetitive discussion” that “moves toward a collective and deeper understanding of the reading rather than to one right answer. Students talk through possible interpretations.”

This idea seems simple enough, and indeed, I’ve had teachers who said that they were leading a Socratic Seminar.  However, I think that the focus on the discussion/meaning-making process that the (Adler and Gray approach to the) Socratic Seminar offers is what really can set a SS apart from a regular old class discussion.

The critical piece here seems to be an inner and outer circle and the important role of observation:

The teacher gives each student a short passage, preferably less than one page. Before class, students read and take notes on their reading. During class, the students divide into an inner and an outer circle. One group holds a discussion while the other group observes.

Metzger did have to be deliberate about modeling observation and note-taking on certain parts of the process itself, which makes sense. Although I often notice things like body language and tone, I so often jump to interpretations of those things that I don’t often consider just taking objective notes on such things.

The students in Metzger’s classes worked though some challenging material, relying primarily on each other. Metzger found refraining from jumping in and guiding the discussion too much difficult at first.

Reading through Metzger’s description, I immediately tried to put myself in her shoes. Although I think that I might also get a bit impatient and find it hard to simply listen and gently facilitate (I have this problem in class sometimes, and it’s mostly just because I get really excited about things), this way of thinking about learning is much more appealing to me when compared to some sort of top-down approach. In short, I see myself as a bigger fan of facilitation than straight-up instruction, though they both have their place in a learning environment (and may overlap).

The last reading that I completed was the Tredway piece. I found it helpful to read a slightly different angle on Socratic Seminar approaches, but it was a much more general/summary-type of writing. Ultimately. I found Metzger’s very honest step-by-step account more useful and relate-able.

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6 thoughts on “Book Clubs, Socratic Seminars & Talking About Reading

    1. Kristin — That’s a good question (don’t know how I missed the comments until now). I’d say that going into last week’s class I thought that Socratic seminars were really only a good fit for learning in more of a traditional classroom environment. However, after some discussion, I think that it’s interesting to try to take pieces of the that model/method and try to use them or at least keep them in mind in other sorts of book discussion groups. I’m writing about that in the draft of my class-blog, actually!

  1. What struck me, too, about the Metzger piece was how she had to purposefully remove herself as an influence on the discussion, which no doubt can be hard! I am always intrigued by accounts of young people forming their own learning communities somewhat apart from the teacher’s influence, and have done some research in the past about how blogging can help facilitate that shift from “writing for the teacher” to “writing for a wider audience” — I bet the Socratic discussion helps work in the same way, which is exciting!

    1. Kelly – I agree! I thought that Metzger’s students letting her know that she needed to step back was interesting. It has to be hard for someone who is used to an instructor role to do that. I know that it would be a challenge for me. It’s already challenging for me to step out of the circle of conversation in any class discussion where I get really engaged, so if I had usually been the leader of lessons, I think it would be even harder!

      I like your idea tying a shift in writing for a wider audience (irt blogging) to the Socratic discussion. I think there’s definitely a connection there!

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