Middle level learners are edgy. They push at the edges in different aspects of their lives in all sorts of ways at all sorts of times: academically, physically, emotionally, athletically, and socially. In class, sometimes they talk too much, and sometimes they don’t want to talk at all. After significant trial and error, the two of us, teachers in social studies and English, have adopted a Paideia Seminar method for discussion, finding this harnesses their unique and developing traits as young adolescents by letting them engage both socially and intellectually with challenging content.
“Oh yeah! We’re doing Paideia Seminar today!” one student exclaimed as he walked into the room.
“What are we doing?” asked another student. Then, seeing the tables and chairs arranged in a giant rectangle, added, “Oh yeah! Seminar!”
These are the animated reactions we hear when it’s Paideia Seminar day, even though it’s a frequent occurrence in the seventh-grade English and social studies classes we teach. The fact that the room’s arrangement is changed is an important feature for our students, one that is supported by research. Zhu and Argo (2013) found that an environmental cue, such as a new seating arrangement, “can activate fundamental human needs” and Wannarka and Ruhl (2008) posited that “desk arrangement can have a dramatic impact on student behavior." By simply manipulating the furniture, a teacher can potentially increase interest and engagement. It is important to note, however, that different kinds of instruction call for different behaviors: individual writing requires a different set of behaviors, for example, than a discussion. Therefore, Wannarka and Ruhl (2008) added that the “nature of the task should dictate the arrangement.” In their synthesis of research on seating arrangements, they found that when interactive behavior such as discussion is desired, desks should be arranged in a way that facilitates talking and collaboration. In considering the behavior needed specifically for discussion, they explained that “proximity and orientation influence communication,” making it feasible that desk configuration can have an impact on the “nature and extent of student interaction.” Additionally, Zhu and Argo (2013) determined that circular seating arrangements prime a need to belong, whereas angular shapes prime a need to be unique. Arguably, these contrasting needs would impact students’ performance in a discussion. These two needs of belonging and uniqueness are often present with middle schoolers simultaneously. Thus, the reactions we hear when students see the room arranged in a rectangle or circle rather than rows or clusters are, if not expected, at least not surprising.
Changing the configuration of the room isn’t the only aspect of Paideia Seminar to embrace. This sort of discussion is a type of Socratic seminar, but one that is both student centered and text focused. In a student-centered seminar, “The teacher must give up the didactic role of know-all lecturer” (Fischer, 2015). Different from a teacher-directed discussion, a seminar is more open ended and less driven toward a particular resolution (Fischer, 2015). A Paideia Seminar focuses on a specific text, usually a primary source or other nonfiction historical text, whether that text is a photograph, a poem, a government document, a letter, a video, or other textual item (“What Is Paideia Seminar?” 2015). Students are given time to read and thoroughly annotate the text. As the seminar begins, they select or are given speaking and/or listening goals to achieve during the conversation.
The conversation occurs, starting with questions posed by the teacher. After a question is posed, the students respond, answering the question itself, agreeing or disagreeing with the answer, posing related questions, and otherwise responding to each other. A writing component completes the overall inquiry. Thus, the seminar model addresses all strands of the Common Core State Standards: reading, speaking and listening, writing, and use of language. Paideia Seminar is powerful in its breadth of required and developed skills, but the real power lies in how it meets the needs of middle school students and simultaneously challenges them.
Because middle school students are broadening their ideas about the world and learning what kind of learners they can be, Paideia Seminar meets different developmental needs. According to Piaget, students in middle school are making the transition from being concrete thinkers to using more abstract reasoning (qtd. in Gould, 2015). For the more concrete thinkers, being the resource for definitions of unfamiliar words and background knowledge can be a comfortable place while they are exposed to and start to participate in creating more abstract concepts. Open-ended questions, analysis, and building on the ideas of others likewise engage more abstract thinkers. The arrangement of the room and the procedures of the seminar cause students, whether concrete or abstract thinkers, to be more likely to engage in collaborative discussion (Fischer, 2015; Wannarka & Ruhl, 2008). Seminar is sometimes the first time students have been seen as academic resources, and it sends a powerful message about their potential. Potential opens possibilities: having these new maps of possibility revealed to them at this period in their lives is especially powerful.
To begin with, it’s crucial to start with a text rich in both content and context. Nonfiction historical texts, or primary sources—required by the Common Core State Standards—are ideal for Paideia Seminars. They challenge the reader, allow a range of perspectives, and invite connection to other learning. In our social studies and English classes, we have used Crown v. John Peter Zenger, Reverend Wright’s “Aboard a Slave Ship,” “General Washington’s Letter to Governor Clinton,” and Lincoln’s “Gettysburg Address” to name a few. Using these primary sources as texts for discussion meets multiple standards in multiple strands for literacy learning.
In addition to preparing the students, preparing the teachers is also key, especially when dealing with a dense and difficult text such as a nonfiction historical document or unfamiliar piece of literature. Creating the seminar plan involves careful crafting of open-ended questions that will help guide the seminar and elicit both critical and creative thinking. The idea is to create a flow from one question to another that stretches the students’ analytical abilities. Table 1 includes general questions and Table 2 lists questions specific to a primary source.
One of the more difficult aspects of Paideia Seminar is that the teacher must stay silent at times, requiring the students to carry the discussion. There will be seemingly eternal pauses that the teacher must allow to happen in order to foster more discussion. This is, in many ways, setting the stage for the students to find their own answers, a most powerful outcome. Students quickly adapt to this different way of discussing a text. Often, there is so much discussion among the students that it is a challenge to get through all of the prepared questions.
After using these seminars frequently over the course of a few years, we knew anecdotally that they were effective, but we didn’t have concrete data. In thinking about how to collect that information, we were most interested in how often students cited textual evidence, how often they analyzed evidence, and how often they extended or built upon the ideas of their classmates. We created a tool that had sections for these categories and a few others, as shown in Table 3. Using direct observation, Dana tallied the kinds of talk being used and took narrative notes while Tom conducted a Paideia Seminar. In one class of seven female and eleven male students, a Paideia Seminar was conducted using a soldier’s account of the Trail of Tears (Burnett, n.d.). Dana tallied the utterances in each of the categories. There were 104 during the 40-minute discussion. Of those, 27 referred to textual evidence either explicitly or implicitly, 44 analyzed evidence, 21 built on a previous comment, and 8 were either clarifications or questions from the teacher. These numbers were fairly consistent across all five classes observed.
Most of the time, text references were explicit, right down to a specific section. For example, one student said, “In paragraph eight, it says that he attempted to stop the whipping of a Cherokee and got hurt himself. That shows that he did all he could to ‘alleviate their sufferings.’” When textual evidence was implicit, it was usually a reference to a text read previously, such as when a student was putting the Trail of Tears in its larger context of Andrew Jackson’s presidency, the Indian Removal Act, and the looming Civil War. The student used these historical examples to extrapolate to the idea that “if [the US government] hadn’t done anything, the Cherokee culture would have been wiped out.” Another student added evidence that the Indian Removal Act was “a horrific thing, but the smartest thing at the time.” Analysis was the highlight of the discussion.
Students used the text to talk about historical perspective:
“Now we realize how bad it is, but at the time, no one did.”
“Now, we’re more careful. Back then, they only thought about how things would affect them and they just kicked the Cherokee to the curb because they wanted their land. Now we’re more careful about how our actions affect others. They were only thinking about how to fix a problem right then, not looking at the long term solution.”
“We’ve evolved from that.”
“Now we think long term, not short term. That has helped our choices a lot in modern days.”
Students also addressed the value of studying primary sources in different sessions:
One student said people could “appreciate [the event] more because of a document like this. At the time, this knowledge wouldn’t have been very widespread. We can understand the history of it.”
“With this source, we can see how it really was, how it impacted them emotionally and physically.”
“It helped us understand. Before we had parents and teachers telling us things, but because we have factual sources that are mostly unbiased they can show us how it really was. We can look at the facts and develop our own opinions.”
We have yet to have a Paideia Seminar lesson plan fall flat, but we have had several that went quite far afield. As long as we have been able to guide the students to develop their analysis skills, we are willing to let the discussion run its course. An example of this was during a seminar on General George Washington’s letter to Governor George Clinton during the winter at Valley Forge. The focus of the seminar questions was on the terrible conditions facing the Continental Army (see Table 2). One particular class became quite enthralled with the rather formal style of speech of the letter. This led to a lengthy discussion about the nature of social interaction in the eighteenth century and how the language reflected the times. We did not get through all of the prepared questions, but students self-assessed that they met their goals, and they definitely practiced their analysis skills. Our overall goal of every seminar is to create a learning environment that helps us better teach our students the skill of analysis.
Paideia Seminar has proven a valuable instructional method in our classes. Changing the space of the room and the pace of the discussion allows students to handle content in a manner that connects to middle school students where they are and gives them glimpses of where they can go. This simple geometry of discussion provides a foundation block for growing academic skills, creating three-dimensional learning out of what may have seemed like two-dimensional content.