The students in my ninth grade class are seated in two circles. The inside circle of students in chairs is involved in a heated discussion of who is to blame for the deaths of Romeo and Juliet. They have a notecard of questions or topics to discuss and a copy of the pink Folger Shakespeare Romeo and Juliet in their hands.
The outside circle, seated at desks, has various responsibilities. Some are tracking contributions of speakers: Who speaks? What questions are asked? Who answers? Do they reference or quote from the text? Do they build off the contributions of others? Do they invite non-participants to speak? Others are on their Chromebooks, working as silent contributors on the online discussion board, sharing their thoughts about the topics circling the center group.
Apart from both circles, yet still in the thick of it, I am seated just outside the center circle, recording what I observe while the center circle conducts the discussion. I notice a student who has been quiet so far is leaning forward, fairly dancing in his seat. At the next crack in the discussion, I suggest Alex might have something to share. “Tybalt!” He bursts out of his chair, animated, pacing. “He’s the one who attacks Mercutio for no reason! And then Romeo has to kill him!” He sits back down, and the conversation sparks along for another ten minutes, as the students consider the implications of Alex’s suggestion, along with several other topics that arise, before I call it to a close and ask the outside circle to offer an observation about what went well and what we can improve upon as a group. They whip around the circle with their suggestions. Then the inside and outside circle switch places and roles, and the discussion picks up again with Elise’s suggestion that Friar Laurence’s actions had the most influence on their eventual deaths.
After two days of this kind of discussion, called a Socratic Circle, we have analyzed each individual character’s agency for their decisions and their impact on the events of the play, as well as the societal forces at work influencing their motivations and actions. We have mulled over favorite lines and phrasing, savoring the power of Shakespeare’s language. We have laughed and enjoyed one another’s company and contributions. All have spoken, all have interacted in a learning community with engaged participation for 45 minutes per day. Aside from directing the reflection and switching of roles and groups, I have spoken in the discussion twice to invite the participation of quieter students, and once to ask the group to consider Juliet’s options from a gender lens: What power does she truly have to decide her own fate in her society? This is an exceptional lesson day in my classroom, that I strive to repeat each time we hold Socratic Circle discussion, because I want it to be the rule rather than the exception, that on any given day, what you will see in my classroom are happily engaged scholars and what you will hear are my students’ voices.
Jenny Paulsen loves to share her passion for engaging students with literature. She is in her first year as an instructional coach for the Cedar Falls Community School District.