On "Getting the Right Answers" to Socratic Questions

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One of my favorite, daily tasks at CenterForLit is answering emails from parents and educators who write with questions about literature and homeschooling. I look forward to these conversations, albeit virtual, because I remember the isolation endemic in much of my own homeschooling work. Taking on the monolithic task of educating any child in the face of armies of educators in the public and private educational sector, all of whom bear degrees and expertise in their single fields, requires a great deal of confidence, which many call temerity. I mean, who do we think we are, right?

This fear of being ill equipped to teach our kids with excellence is ubiquitous. Even the most learned struggle to believe that they are up to the task of giving their kids what they need. Regardless of our educational background, there is inevitably a subject that reveals our own gaps and weaknesses. Can we really do this thing?

This week, I heard from a mom who was working through our Teaching the Classics Basic Seminar to learn our method of analytical reading. Although she held a college degree, she was dismayed to discover that her attempts to anticipate the answers to the Socratic dialogue conducted on the DVD were failing. She was “getting all the answers wrong.”  Was she just “too stupid” to do this with her children, she asked. Worse still, she noted, she was getting these wrong answers to questions about simple children’s books like Beatrix Potter’s Peter Rabbit. What would happen when she turned to more mature works?

For those of you, who like this mom, wonder if you really are capable of teaching literature Socratically, know that you are not alone in the learning curve struggle, and you are certainly not stupid! Learning to read and to think clearly about literature represents a paradigm shift for many, but it is easier than you might think. It is as simple as learning to ask the right questions.

Take Peter Rabbit for example: What if your simple answer to the plot question, “What does Peter want?” reads nothing more than, "Food!” Would you be wrong? If you asked one of your young students this question, they will probably answer similarly. Depending upon their ages, they might also suggest excitement, or the forbidden, or a multitude of other things. As a matter of fact, Peter wants many things. None of these are necessarily wrong answers. They work together to establish the initial story conflict, which grows to become the major plot conflict: Peter is stuck in the garden (in direct rebellion to his mother’s express command), and he needs to get out and away from those who are chasing him (to wit: Mr. McGregor and the cat). 

When students answer the "What does the protagonist want?" question, there's no need to shoot any of them down. Take note of their answers and contemplate them all. How do they each fit into the larger story? Do they trend in a particular direction? Does one stand out as the most significant? The very act of discussing this requires the student to think carefully about how the story elements fit together and what the author might be aiming toward, supporting their own understanding with examples from the text

Here's the big secret: This is good reading! Socratic discussion helps because having more than one mind at work on a question encourages students to notice all the story's parts. Sometimes others see things one has missed or overlooked. When it becomes clear that "getting the answer right" is not the singular point of the Socratic exercise, but the discussion itself is a major goal, then teaching and learning becomes an enjoyable process, instead of an occasion for failure.    

If one were to go to a university and check out several critical interpretations of a single work of literature, they may be surprised to find that each literary critic notices different things about the story, and that those things influence their understanding (or inform their reading or interpretation) of the work. Each critic brings a different emphasis to bear on the text. That is not to say that every interpretation is right, or that every interpretation is equal. Some read better (or more honestly) than others. Certainly, the author meant some things and not others when he or she wrote. Even so, the author is not often present when we read; so, the good reader’s job is more demanding. She must follow carefully the clues and directives, the artistic flourishes that the author has embedded in the story, to understand him. If the author has done their job (written well) and the reader does her job (reading well), then they will come to a meeting of the minds - communication! 

Knowing the tools of the writer's trade (the artistic flourishes: structure, literary devices, etc.) can help the reader to a deeper understanding of a literary work.  Knowing a bit about the context in which the story was written (biographical details and period details) can allow a reader to "check her work." When practicing this in class with students, be relentless about making them support their assertions with evidence - quotations from the story itself.  Say, "That's an interesting idea. How do you know this?" or "Where do you see this in the story?" or "Why do you say this?  Can you show me?"  

Sometimes a discussion will revolve around the major story conflict or story question; other times it will center around who the protagonist is or what scene constitutes the climactic moment. There's really no such thing as a bad question or a futile discussion if you are sticking to the story itself. Force the students to tie all of their comments to the story in a demonstrable way. This keeps them focused on what the author is up to, rather than on airing their own opinions. Reading is more listening than talking. It is appreciation, rather than creation. It is discovery, rather than fabrication.

Be encouraged! As you ask the basic questions of literature, the story will inevitably unfold for you. The human mind was made to read. You can do this!