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Our Journal Discussions are a three-step process:  the first is the journal itself; the second is the online discussion board; and the third is the in-class Socratic seminar.  We'll examine each of these steps one at a time.


I.  Journal

In our unit on William Faulkner's As I Lay Dying, we want to examine the nature of Darl's seeming "madness" and have selected the 2001 AP Literary Argument prompt for the final essay:

One definition of madness is "mental delusion or the eccentric behavior arising from it."  But Emily Dickinson wrote


Novelists  and playwrights have often seen madness with a "discerning Eye."  Select a novel or play in which a character's apparent madness or irrational behavior plays an important role.  Then write a well-organized essay in which you explain what this delusion or eccentric behavior consists of and how it might be judged reasonable.  Explain the significance of the "madness" to the work as a whole.  Do not merely summarize the plot.

Much madness is divinest Sense

To a discerning Eye—

To understand this prompt better, students will break down Emily Dickinson's full poem in the AP Poetry Analysis section of the unit, but to get them to start thinking about the nature of "madness" and its relationship to rationality, we first present the Essential Questions for the unit: 

Essential Questions.jpg

After introducing the Essential Questions, we first get students to begin thinking about possible answers through the journal, which presents a thought-provoking quotation that approaches the subject from a distinct perspective.  It is important for students to understand that the journal quotation is just one person's opinion, so students should feel free to agree or disagree with it.  When we present the quotation, we also give a brief background of the author or speaker so students will know, for instance, that Fredrich Nietzsche was a German philosopher in the late 19th century who ushered in many of the ideas of Modernism that radically transformed Western culture in the 20th century.  

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Once we have introduced the quotation and answered any questions—for instance, what the word "epoch" means—, students will then begin their journal.  The directions for the journal are that students should write continuously for five minutes with the goal of attaining a MINIMUM of 150 words.  To break down what it means to write 150 words in five minutes, we tell students that they need to write 30 words per minute, which means they have to write one word every two seconds.  If students write continuously, however, they should be able to achieve the minimum goal comfortably.


The challenge of the journal is to write as many words as possible within five minutes while still maintaining coherency and attaining some level of insight.  We emphasize to students that getting ideas down quickly is a skill that must be practiced and developed, so they should not perseverate over getting their thoughts and wording exactly right.  We emphasize that on AP exams, time management is critical, and the common denominator for most high-scoring essays is simply the number of words written.  Not to say that just because students write a lot that they will receive a high score, but if they do NOT write a lot, they are unlikely to receive a high score.

If students are confused as to what to write, we offer the following questions to guide their thinking:


Students do not need to answer every question, but they should follow the basic progression of first trying to explain what the quotation means, then evaluating whether or not they agree with the opinion being expressed, and then applying these ideas to their own lives or previous studies in some way.  If students are exploring the complexity of the quotation in depth, however, they may use the entire five minutes on the explanation alone, which in some ways is preferable; it is better to go into great detail on one of the questions than to answer all of them superficially.


Since AP essays are still handwritten on the exam (and since many college English classes still use blue books for in-class essays), we have students handwrite their journals to practice writing quickly with pen and paper.  We feel it is a skill that needs to be developed to prepare students for future assessments.  At some point handwriting essays may become obsolete, but until it is, we look for opportunities to have students practice these skills.


Once students have completed the journal in class, they type it up for homeworkmaking minor editorial adjustments in content and grammar, if necessary—and post it to the online discussion board that the teacher has created on Canvas, Google Classroom, or whatever learning management system your school uses.  If your school does not use an online LMS, you can skip this second step and go straight to the in-class discussion. 

II.  Online Discussion Board

After students post their journals on the online discussion board, they read their classmates' entries over the next few days and respond to two entries with a MAXIMUM of 150 words for each.  The goal of the student responses is to expand on their classmates' thoughts with new ideas or to challenge their classmates' positions in a respectful way.  Students are evaluated on their journal entry and two responses based on the clarity and coherence of their arguments and the insight and depth of their analysis.

Similar to Authentic Assessments, evaluations of the online discussion board are conducted by teacher and students alike.  One way is to have students complete a form where they rank who they believe were the top three performers on the online discussion board (other than themselves, of course) before assessing their own performance:

If the online discussion board is worth 10 points, the students selected for the podium would be considered "outstanding" (i.e. they "stood out" in comparison to their peers) and worthy of a perfect 10/10 score.  After selecting their top performing peers, students then assess their own performance in comparison to those top performers.  The standard 10-point scale that we use for determining the quality of any public performance is the following:

Grade Scale.jpg

By making students part of the evaluation process, grades become a communal decision and not handed down by a single evaluator (i.e. the teacher).  Once student scorecards have been collected, the teacher tallies the votes to determine who deserves a 10/10, 9/10, 8/10, etc. for the assignment.

To model what an outstanding journal and responses might look like, it is beneficial, especially at the beginning of the year when you are establishing standards of quality, to share the top vote-getters' entries by reading them aloud in class and discussing why students thought they were so good.  The more students verbalize what constitutes quality writing, the better.  Here is a model journal entry with responses for the Nietzsche quotation: 

What is most important about the responses is that they move the conversation forward in some way.  Oftentimes,  students will just agree with what other students have said and then repeat their arguments without providing any new insights, examples, or observations.  The goal of the online discussion board is to explore the complexity of the issues through an evolving exchange of new ideas that build upon one another.  After the online discussion board concludes, we are ready to continue the conversation in class during the third and final part of the process: the Socratic seminar.

III.  Socratic Seminar

One option is to have the Socratic seminar the day after concluding the online discussion board when the ideas are still fresh in students' minds.  Another, perhaps better, option is to wait until students have finished the novel or play so students can compare and contrast the ideas expressed in the quotation with the ideas discovered in the AP Poetry Analysis and in the novel or play itself.  For instance, how do the ideas of the speaker/author of the quotation, the poet, and the novelist/playwright combine to help us understand and answer those Essential Questions most effectively? 

While there are many different ways of conducting Socratic seminars, it is important to establish ground rules for proper student conduct.  The first step is to differentiate between a formal debate and a Socratic seminar:

Socratic Seminar.jpg

It is important to reiterate that Essential Questions are difficult, if not impossible, to answer definitively; therefore, the goal in a Socratic seminar is not to "win" the argument but try to come up with a deeper understanding of the complexity of the issues involved.  To maintain civil discourse and a positive classroom environment, we emphasize the following five "Rules of Engagement" for our Socratic seminars:

1.  Be courteous and respectful of your classmates at all times.

2.  Seek to understand as well as to be understood.

3.  Support your claims with concrete details and specific examples.

4.  Maintain an open mind and be willing to re-think your position.

5.  Move the discussion forward with new insights, observations, or questions.

Once again, there are many different ways to conduct a Socratic seminar to ensure that students have an equal opportunity to voice their opinions, but we aspire to make it as close to a college-level seminar as possible, which means we have no established "rules"—such as raising hands or waiting to be called on.  Instead, we prefer to keep the discussion as open and free-flowing as possible where students play off each other's ideas, which results in a conversation that evolves in an organic manner.  Early in the year teachers may have to step in to maintain order and re-focus the discussion, but these should be regarded as "teachable moments" to let students know when they have gotten off-track and are no longer following the principles or guidelines of a civil Socratic seminar.

Evaluation of the Socratic seminar is the same as the online discussion board, where students select their podium nominees (i.e. the top three performers in the class) based on the clarity and coherence of their arguments and the insight and depth of their analysis.  Students should then assess their own performance in comparison to the top performers and provide a written rationale for their evaluation.  After the teacher collects the scorecards and tallies the votes, the podium winners (and the Seminar MVP) should be announced in the next class to acknowledge those students who were recognized by their peers for making an outstanding contribution to the class discussion.

We aspire to be an active, engaged professional development community.  Please submit your questions, comments, or suggestions to join the conversation!

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