By Susan Radford, AVID Elective Teacher
North Middle School, Everett, Washington
How do I ensure every student in my class is challenged with rigorous material and is able to be successful?
I asked myself this essential question when I had my AVID students participate in a videotaped Socratic Seminar on the Allegory of Plato’s Cave. Three conditions were needed for the lesson to have rigor and for all of my students to be successful:
- My students and I had to believe that they could be successful.
- The material had to be rigorous and engaging.
- I needed to provide scaffolding, ensuring every student understood the components of the Allegory and could engage in meaningful dialogue.
To introduce the Allegory of Plato’s Cave, I told my students that they were capable of understanding the material and having a meaningful Socratic Seminar. Some might say that this complex material is better left to a college philosophy class, but my students not only met my expectations, they exceeded them.
The Allegory written by Plato is still applicable today. I used an excerpt of the Allegory from Paul K. Chappell’s book, The End of War: How Waging Peace Can Save Humanity, Our Planet, and Our Future, which paints a picture of voluntary slaves staring mindlessly at shadow images on a cave wall. These images are manipulated by a puppet master, standing on a ledge between the wall and a fire at the cave’s front. Chappell’s style makes the complex material easily accessible.
My AVID class is a mix of general education, ELL, and special education students. For any given lesson, some students will struggle with academic language.
Therefore, I used the following scaffolding:
- A picture-based narrative of the Allegory with embedded questioning
- Shared understanding of the vocabulary
- Student-generated, class-reviewed discussion questions
- Small-group Socratic Seminars, led by tutors
I used an illustration of Plato’s Cave, drawn on butcher paper, as the introductory background for a narrative, unveiling the Allegory’s components: the voluntary slaves, the shadow images, the puppet master, the fire, and the cave’s exit. As I introduced each component, I added a pre-drawn picture of that component to the cave background, along with a quote about it. Embedded in the narrative were a variety of questions, ranging from recall to application, allowing students to process the information and engaging them in thinking about the Allegory and how it might apply in society, at school, and in their lives.
After reading the Allegory of Plato’s Cave excerpt, and to ensure that the entire class had a shared understanding of the vocabulary, I had students underline words they did not recognize or could not easily define. They shared these words with the entire class; then, the class generated definitions, using dictionaries when necessary, and recorded these definitions in their AVID Interactive Notebooks.
Initially, students generated higher-level questions for the Socratic Seminar by working collaboratively in table groups. These questions, based on Costa’s Levels of Thinking, were then shared with the class, who revised any questions that they felt incorrectly used one of Costa’s question stems. I had students individually evaluate questions and identify one that they felt would produce the best dialogue.
Instead of having a whole-class or fishbowl Socratic Seminar, the students worked in small groups, with a tutor assigned to each group to facilitate the discussions. Each student shared the question that he or she had selected; then, the group chose an initial question to start their dialogue. The smaller, tutorial-sized groups ensured that every student could participate.
Ultimately, the Socratic Seminar on the Allegory of Plato’s Cave was a huge success, with highly engaging dialogue and every student participating in a meaningful way. One of our district’s assistant superintendents came to observe and listen to the dialogue; she was so impressed with the students’ discussions that she asked for a copy of the video to use as an exemplar of rigor in the classroom.
Susan Radford has taught at North Middle School in Everett, Washington, for 22 years. In addition to teaching 7th Grade AVID Elective and 7th Grade Science classes, she also teaches a beginning ELL/Extended Resource Science class that utilizes and blends best practices from AVID and Project GLAD.