Billion Oyster Project

The Big Oyster: Reading and Discussion Circle (Socratic Seminar)


Teacher-Authored Lessons



Class Periods




Subject Areas

Science, Social Studies, ELA


Students will read the epilogue from the national bestseller, 'The Big Oyster' by Mark Kurlansky as well as participate in a socratic seminar discussion circle.


I can analyze the historical significance of oysters in NY Harbor

Materials and Resources


Copies for each student
  • Epilogue from The Big Oyster p. 267 - 280
  • Copies of socratic seminar rubric / feedback form
  • Copies of the socratic seminar discussion questions

Before you get started

Tips for Teachers

  • Provide time for students to read the article in class prior to the socratic seminar day
  • Think strategically about student groupings for the socratic seminar discussion
  • Decide if you want your socratic seminar to be informally or formally assessed
  • Have the classroom prepared / set up in an inner and outer circle prior to students entering the classroom on seminar day
  • Think about how you will encourage all students to participate


  • Teachers should set aside at least 1 day for students to read the text in class
  • A socratic seminar discussion circle typically takes place during 1 full class period.
  • Socratic seminars require 2 groups that will comprise an inner and outer circle.  Teachers should think strategically about how to group students to maximize student engagement during discussions.  Some strategies may include putting more talkative students in one group and quieter students in another or mixing talkative/quiet students together and then giving each group time to strategize ways to ensure all students participate.
  • Have the classroom prepared / set up in an inner and outer circle prior to students entering the classroom on seminar day


The Big Oyster by Mark Kurlansky is a must read for teachers looking to make oysters a focus in their classrooms.  The book does a fantastic job of providing a historical context for the role oysters have played in New York City's history as well as what the future may hold for restoration efforts currently under way.  Using this 'anchor text' for an analysis and student-led discussion of NYC history can lead students towards a new appreciation and understanding of why programs like BOP are making such great efforts to return oysters to NY harbor.

Instruction Plan


Socratic seminars require at least 1 class period of preparation and 1 period for implementation.  

On day 1 teachers can provide an in-class 'reading day' for students to become familiar with the text.  One possible way this could be done is to allow stronger readers to work with the text independently while a smaller group of students who may need additional supports read the text with the teacher.  We have found it beneficial to chunk the text into 'stops' every few paragraphs or so.  At each 'stop' students are asked to write a one-sentence summary of what they read.  These stops can then be referred to as 'evidence' during the socratic seminar and are also a means for which to hold students accountable and help ensure they complete the assigned reading.  

Some teachers do not allow students who have not completed the reading to participate in the socratic circle.  We collect student 1-sentence summaries and assign them as a homework grade in addition to the grade they receive for participating in the socratic seminar.


Socratic seminar day

There are lots of ways to carry-out a socratic seminar in the classroom.  Below are some of the best practices we have developed over multiple iterations.

On the day of the seminar the classroom should be prepared with desks/tables arranged in two circles (an inner and outer). Note, in small classes (15 or less it may be better to have 1 discussion circle instead of 2).  

As students enter the classroom they should take out their reading and get into the groups they have been assigned.  Students should also pick up the socratic seminar rubric / feedback form which can be reviewed just before starting the socratic seminar (or the day before to save time).  

The socratic seminar begins by a student nominating a question to discuss (we provide students with the possible questions with the reading prior to seminar day).  Students in the inner circle then discuss, using textual evidence and accountable talk, while students on the outside of the circle are process observers (filling in the back of the rubric (feedback form) as the discussion progresses.

As students discuss the teacher is typically transcribing the conversation and only jumps in if the conversation needs redirection or if the content being discussed is way off.  The idea here is for students to be the leaders and drivers of their learning.

As the discussion progresses, students can decide to explore different questions or the teacher can suggest the group switches to a new question.  During this time the outside circle remains silent.  

After a predetermined amount of time (usually 1/2 of the class) the outside circle provides their observations to the inner circle, the two groups switch and the process repeats with the new inner circle.


Socratic seminars can be both informal or formal depending on the desire of each individual teacher.  

We have found it useful to try to capture as much of the student conversations as possible and assess each individual student in accordance to the rubric.  

During discussions we try to create a transcript of what each student says; this makes grading students on the rubric more objective.

We tell students that when they arrive in the classroom they have a grade of a 55.  If they participate once they will have at minimum a 65. If they participate more than once or once in a way that they hit on higher levels of the rubric their grade increases accordingly.


Some students will always be hesitant to participate in discussion circles.  One way we try to give students multiple opportunities to participate is by allowing students to respond in writing to the socratic seminar questions using the rubric as a guide for how they should respond.