Guest blog: Ross Trudeau on "ability grouping" in Socratic Seminars

Mike here. Today I want to turn over the space to Ross Trudeau. Ross came up through Match Corps and our teacher residency. Also we'd play hoops at 6am on Wednesdays. At the time, great outside shot. Almost won our 3-point charity tournament at Boston U, but some ringer beat him out. Now Ross teaches at KIPP King, in the San Fran Bay area. I’m not sure if his game is rusty from the teaching load, or it’s enhanced by physical proximity to Dell Seth Steph Curry

Okay, down to business. A bit of edu-context first. A few months ago I moderated a panel at Harvard. It was about high-dosage tutoring. One of my friends spoke up from the audience. This guy leads of one of the Massachusetts teachers unions. He said something along the lines of:

These tutoring programs group kids by their current skill or ability level. That makes sense. But often public schoolteachers do not get that chance. They’re told by administrators that this is forbidden. Instead some of my members get told students must be randomly grouped, and supposedly “differentiated.” When can this audience (a mix of policymakers, Harvard scholars, etc) have an honest conversation about that?”

Nobody took him up on it. But I thought it was a good question. A short summary of the tracking issue is here.

A related question is not how are all the kids in a single grade divided into various classes, but how are they essentially “re-divided” within a class? Enter Ross.

I teach English IV. It’s taken by all our 12th graders. Some will soon attend top colleges, some kids have severe learning disabilities, some are proficient but reticent learners, and a large number are current or former English Learner-designees, mostly Latino and Asian.

My principal wants our teachers to teach more Socratic seminars. That’s a class where students are responsible for running a discussion that attempts to answer an essential question about the novel we're reading.

I’ve struggled before with these classes. The organic nature of seminars gives strong learners the freedom to immediately elevate the dialogue to a level that is not appropriate for all learners. Specifically:

1. With the teacher on the sidelines, the advanced students often use vocabulary and syntax which “English Learners” struggle to understand.

2. Reticent students, regardless of their proficiency level, tend to be muscled out by their more vocal peers.

Ross wasn’t too happy about being nudged by his principal to teach this way. But after some grousing, he stepped up, and came up with this idea.

1. I grouped the most reticent 14 students (based on stats from previous seminars) into the inner circle. These were mostly my struggling learners, interspersed with less-vocal advanced learners.

2. I explicitly stated to the students that they were being homogenously grouped based on how frequently they had contributed to the previous 2 seminars. I took care to explain that people had not been contributing for a variety of reasons, including that they might have been drowned out by the “talkative” students.

3. I described my plan. The essential question for this seminar on a Maya Angelou story called Champion of the World was, "Is it appropriate for an oppressed community to rely on symbolic victories?"

I broke it down into about ten leveled questions, like "What is life like in the deep South for black Americans during this time?" and "What metaphors does Angelou use to describe her characters?"

The first inner circle was to ask and answer these simpler questions — which first check basic comprehension, then check whether students can apply what they learned.

4. When these questions had been answered, including student-created ones which I had not myself anticipated, we’d swap inner and outer circle positions. The more participatory 14 students would work on analysis questions, like "Does Angelou's diction suggest she approves of or criticizes the community's behavior?"

Finally they’d address the essential question.

Got it? The more reluctant talkers get the stage first, and hold the stage for half the class. Then those who are typically the hand-raising participants are involved for the second half. So what happened?

I worried some students would be offended or terrified at being separated homogenously into the “first group.” Reticent students could no longer languish (both voluntarily and otherwise) behind the “smart” or “talkative” kids.

Class began.

Silence.

30 seconds. A full minute. Kids chewing their lips.

Then a student said: “Well, the first question is about when the story happens.” Another: "I think it's after slavery but still a long time ago because of the radio."

The conversation took off. Among the first inner circle, 100% of the 14 students at least tripled the raw number of contributions they’d made compared to previous seminars. On a subjective level, I observed struggling learners much more eager to answer questions that challenged them appropriately. I also observed formerly reticent students flourish when they realized they were not “competing” for airtime with chatty students that, over the years, they had become latently bitter toward for bogarting the floor.

After we switched circles, and my most eager 14 students had the floor, they realized with humorous rapidity that they were going to have to learn to share. Thus began an unintended exercise in economy and precision of language, no less gratifying than the results from the first circle.

The post-discussion reflection was powerful. I threw my pen in the air, revealed the encouraging participation statistics, and delivered a standing ovation to the class. When I specifically singled out the first inner circle, their outer circle counterparts vigorously joined in on the applause.

Now, this is clearly no Socratic panacea. There remains a ton of work to be done around extending the learning for the first inner circle (I’ve been experimenting with different post-discussion written tasks), as well as shifting leveled question writing responsibilities to the students. I also wonder if there should be some kind of self-selecting promotion system where kids can “experiment” with the other circle. I’m always looking for thought partners, so any comments would be welcome.