High Schoolers Use Socratic Seminar to Discuss Equal Justice for All

The middle and high school civics course requirements specified that students engage in current and societal issue discussions to prepare for their role as citizens in our constitutional democracy. Two of the driving questions for deliberation on the theme of “Institutional & Social Transformation” in the Educations for Democracy Roadmap are:

  • What is a just society?
  • How do laws and social structures change?

Great discussions on such questions rarely “just happen.” They take time, intention, and planning. At their best, student voice is at the center of these conversations with clearly established norms for discussion created and maintained by all members of the classroom.

Sarah Thomas, a high school teacher at Alton High School is a member of the Illinois Democracy Schools Network and recently participated in the Guardians of Democracy Winter Microcredential cohort, earning her Gold Badge in the proven practice of current and controversial issue discussions. Facilitating student-to-student discussion provides students an opportunity to ask and explore essential questions facing their community. This is an authentic practice to build and practice rigorous and relevant content knowledge aligned to standards, civic skills, and dispositions per the Illinois civics course requirements for middle and high school.

We asked Sarah to share her reflections on engaging her students in a current and controversial issue discussion with the strategy of the Socratic Seminar. Here are her responses.

Briefly describe your topic for your current and controversial issue discussion. 

My topic deals with injustice in the criminal justice system in the US. The prompt is: “Does the US employ equal justice for all?” This is an open issue because the US is still using mass incarceration and disproportionately punishing black and brown Americans far more often than white Americans. The issue is relevant for students because as MLK, Jr. said, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” If we truly live in a democratic and free country,  it should be the same for everyone. 

What strategy did you use for this discussion? Why did you choose this strategy? 

My strategy was a Socratic Seminar. I used this one mainly because it was the only one I had not used for my classes, but also because I think it lent itself to the topic. Unfortunately, this is a topic that students don’t know much about so I think it is very helpful if they just build their knowledge up and have meaningful conversations instead of worrying about choosing sides or persuading others to join them. Socratic seminars allow students to do this. 

How did students gain the necessary background knowledge for this discussion? 

This has been an ongoing topic in my Race and Equity class so the students have heard me talk about this, but they had not researched the topic much themselves. I used the internet and gave students six different websites from organizations like the Sentencing Project, Equal Justice Initiative, etc. 

How did this activity deepen students’ disciplinary content knowledge and/or meet learning targets?

I think anytime students are asked to learn about something, do the research, but then also openly discuss it in their own words and in front of their peers,  there is definitely an increase in knowledge. It was wonderful to watch my students listen to their peers, think about what they said, and then create their own responses to each other. Watching my students go from uninformed to informed is awesome and they loved it also. 

How did this project deepen students’ knowledge of themselves and their community?

My school is fairly diverse. So I think a really great piece of this activity was hearing about people in their own communities who have been victims of injustice in our criminal justice system. Some students were shocked to hear about their own classmates who have relatives and family members who are incarcerated for mainly non-violent drug offenses. After this lesson on criminal justice, I also usually bring in the father of a former student who shares his own experience in prison and how he was locked up after his first offense with a 20+ year sentence. He had a full scholarship to play football at a university, but a car accident ruined that and he started selling drugs to get by. He was released under an executive order from President Obama. His story is incredible.  

What comes next? What did students identify as future opportunities to address this issue?

Students were definitely interested in the topic. However, they were also discouraged because of how unfair “the system” really is. The biggest thing that we talked about was voting and being more engaged in issues in our world. I did this at the end of the semester so we were of course strapped for time, but I think bringing awareness to the issue was a great start and many students were motivated to learn more and do more. 

Do you have any reflections from students that illustrate what they learned from this dialogue?

To me, one of the best parts of this discussion was hearing how my students grew more confident and closer after this experience.  H said, “Class was well prepared, and open/thoughtful through discussion. I became prepared and was more open and talkative. At first, I was skeptical and a little nervous, but since I knew everyone and it seemed just very close between us on the topic, I was able to speak up and talk more. Yes, the class was so prepared and ready for the topic and it was so much better openness, and listening to others, you could feel the connection between us. I love that they learned not just about the topic, but how to have a civil conversation with each other.”

K added, “I don’t think the U.S employs “equal justice“ for all because if they did people in prisons would have an equal amount of white or less Black Americans or Latinos. For example in the U.S, Black Americans and Latinos have the highest rate of going to jail than White Americans, but Black Americans roughly go to jail 5 times more than White Americans in the U.S.” When students looked at the facts they really were able to clearly see how much injustice there is in the criminal justice system.

What advice would you give teachers thinking about opportunities for engaging their students in classroom discussions?

Just do it! Sometimes it can feel overwhelming and it does take a little legwork to set these discussions up properly, but you and your students will reap the benefits of this kind of discussion. We are living in an increasingly polarized world. It is so nice to see your students come together and actively engage in civil discourse about relevant issues. This is a tool they can use in their lives outside of school. It is an awesome and worthy experience. I am already thinking about topics for next year!  I am grateful to the Illinois Democracy Schools for all of their support in these projects. Thank you!