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Animal Farm is a novel filled with events, characters and topics ripe for discussion. A fantastic way to facilitate discussion in an English classroom is the Socratic Seminar (also known as a fishbowl discussion).
I recently used a graded Socratic discussion as the final assessment for a unit on Animal Farm. The students loved the low-stress discussion-based final and I was very pleasantly surprised at the depth and breadth to which they discussed the material. The opportunity to work together to collectively understand the novel really enabled everyone to more fully engage with it.
Of all my teaching ideas this was by far the most successful. This type of discussion works well as a final test, but would also be a great way to review before students take a standard written examination.
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The setup for this activity is actually pretty minimal, aside from rearranging the desks. You’ll want two concentric circles with approximately an equal number of desks in each.
You’ll also want to make up enough half sheets for the class, or prepare them to write on paper of their own. You can create a form for them to fill out or simply ask them to write down two interesting things they heard while in the outer circle.
Make up a list of questions (some examples are available at the end of this article) for them to take home and study ahead of time. Depending on whether or not you want to allow students to repeat questions, you may need at least one question for each student. Print all the questions on a single sheet and distribute one copy to each student a day or more before the discussion so that they can prepare.
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How It Works
Before the discussion, you will want to lay down a few ground rules:
- Only members of the inner circle can speak.
- Only one person speaking at a time.
- Listen and respond to your classmates, don’t just wait for them to finish.
- Speak to the group, not to the teacher.
- Be respectful, ensure that everyone has a chance to speak.
- The goal of the discussion is to help one another understand, not to debate.
When you hand out the list of questions, instruct students to be prepared to answer at least five of the choices, in case the question they’ve chosen is taken before they have a chance to speak.
The discussion goes like this: one student asks a question from the sheet, then gives his or her thoughts on it. Answers must be more than a single sentence. After the student presenting the question has finished, others may comment and the discussion goes from there. Once the discussion of that particular issue seems to end, the next student presents their question, and so on.
Students may take a question or two to get started, but they usually start jumping in. You may have to encourage a few of the quiet students to contribute, but for the most part this discussion should require very little teacher moderation.
Once all students in the inner circle have posed and answered questions, it’s time to switch circles. Those on the outside will move to the inside and the discussion will continue with the new group.
While in the outer circle, students are required to pay attention and write down their thoughts on interesting issues raised by classmates. Turning in their filled-out half sheet is part of the grade for the assignment.
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How to Grade the Activity
I graded students according to the following formula:
- Pose a question and give your thoughts: 30 points.
- Comment on another’s question/during discussion: 20 points (each comment).
- Half sheet filled out with two comments (while in outer circle): 10 points.
- I also gave the possibility of earning extra credit, up to 20 points, for continued participation in discussion.
Depending on time, you could make the individual comments worth 10 points instead of 20 and encourage students to comment more. Only requiring three comments will lead to a lot of students getting extra credit. Once the discussion gets going, they’ll comment without even thinking about earning points for it.
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Sample Discussion Questions
Here are a few examples of questions my students answered particularly well. You can also scour sites like Sparknotes for additional ideas.
- How do the pigs make use of their education and intellect to keep the other animals in line?
- Why do all the animals confess to helping Snowball, especially after they find out that the penalty is death?
- Why is Moses the raven encouraged to stay late in the novel after he was initially forced off the farm before the rebellion? What does he represent?
- Why does Napoleon replace the threat of Jones’ return with that of Snowball’s sabotage? Why does he no longer wish for the animals to fear that Jones will come back?
- In what ways is Napoleon like Farmer Jones at the end of the novel? Is he better or worse?
- Why didn’t Napoleon make all of his changes immediately after seizing control of the farm? Why drag them out over a period of years?
- In what ways is the original government of the farm similar to our own? Do we have a set of “commandments?" Does our country have a system in which ideas are debated and voted upon? In what ways is it different?
- If you have studied the Russian Revolution, how do the characters/events in Animal Farm line up? Who does each pig represent? What major world events are echoed on the farm?
- Compare and contrast the words and message of “Beasts of England" with that of its eventual replacement, the poem “Comrade Napoleon."
- What evidence is there in the book to suggest that perhaps Napoleon is not as smart as he’d like everyone else to believe? What mistakes does he make? How does he cover them up or distract the animals from blaming him?
- How would life on the farm have been different if Snowball had seized control, rather than Napoleon?
- When the pigs first begin to separate themselves from the other animals by drinking the milk and eating the apples, Snowball is still on the farm. Why would he agree to such a practice? Is he truly the benevolent leader that many readers think him to be?
- What purpose does alcohol play in the novel? What is significant about the fact that the pigs use the money from the sale of Boxer to buy whiskey? What other ways do the pigs go about acquiring alcohol? Why does Orwell make a deliberate effort to point them out to us?
I was very pleased with how successful this activity was. I’m definitely planning on including it when I teach Animal Farm in the future, and I’m already working to incorporate the Socratic Seminar into our study of other famous works.
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All references from author's experience.