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Paideia Seminar: Christopher Columbus

95 min
  • Students will be able to analyze a primary source to draw conclusions about the effect and legacy of Christopher Columbus.
  • Students will be able to evaluate the effect of Christopher Columbus’s voyage to the New World and determine the positive and negative consequences.

A Paideia Seminar is similar to a Socratic seminar but is intended to interrogate a single text or a pair of texts. The purpose of this activity is to allow students to discuss their understanding freely and openly in an academic fashion, and to collectively build understanding of a topic.

For this activity, students should be arranged in a circle or a square so that all students can see and hear each other without obstructions. If necessary, students can be arranged in a “fishbowl,” with half the students on the outside circle, who will not speak in the first half of discussion, and the other half on the inside, who will be the main participants in the first half of discussion. Students can then be paired to observe and record a partner’s participation in the discussion and then switch halfway through the questions.

To cultivate civil discourse, it is important that the teacher and students respect the good will of others, regardless of their views and opinions. The teacher should only interject to correct a misconception or understanding, to redirect or refocus the conversation back to the question, or to present a new question to the group. Not all questions need to be asked for the seminar to be successful; the questions asked are up to the teacher’s (and potentially students’) discretion.

The teacher should also keep track of student participation in the discussion using Handout D: Paideia Seminar Rubric and ideally provide this specific feedback to students with specific goals for developing their civil discourse skills in speaking and listening. Because this material is presented near the beginning of the course, this activity can be greatly beneficial to building classroom culture. If students are at first uncomfortable with free discussion, they can be provided with Handout F: Discussion Starters.

1. Before this lesson, students should be introduced to the concept of a Paideia Seminar and the purpose of the activity.

2. Students should make a name tent for themselves by folding the piece of paper and writing their name on it with a marker.

3. Students will use Handout A: Paideia Seminar Goals and Notes to write down one individual goal for themselves. Because this is most likely the first time students have participated in a Paideia Seminar as a group, students may need assistance in developing goals for themselves for this activity (see Handout E: Individual Goal Bank). It may be helpful to distribute a few copies of these sentence starters to students to assist in their goal creation.

4. Ask one or two students to share their individual goal, if they wish.

5. Remind students of the purpose of the day’s activity. Then ask students to brainstorm some class norms to which all can adhere during the discussion. These norms may include:

  • Respect others and other opinions.
  • Criticize ideas, not people.
  • One mic means one voice (or, take turns speaking).
  • Be aware of others trying to speak.
  • Don’t interrupt.
  • Ask questions when you don’t understand.
  • Speak loudly, clearly, and in a respectful tone.
  • Sit up and practice active listening skills.
  • Take notes on important points.
  • Use the text to support your answer.
  • Be patient and allow others to speak their minds; practice wait time between responses before speaking.

6. Then, ask students to suggest goals for the class to strive toward. These goals should be concrete, measurable, and something that everyone contributes to and can attain. These goals may include:

  • Everyone should speak at least once.
  • Everyone should ask at least one question.
  • Everyone should use the text each time they speak.

7. The class should be in consensus about their class goals and state them succinctly. Once a consensus has been reached, a volunteer should post the goals on the board so they are visible throughout the activity, and students should write down these goals on Handout A: Paideia Seminar Goals and Notes.

1. The teacher should be seated in the circle along with students. Remind students of the goals of the activity, and set the tone:

  1. A Paideia Seminar is a collaborative, intellectual dialogue about a text, facilitated with open-ended questions. The main purpose of this particular seminar is to arrive at a fuller understanding of the ideas and values in Christopher Columbus’s voyage to the Americas, of ourselves, and of each other.
  2. As the facilitator, I am primarily responsible for asking challenging, open-ended questions. I will take a variety of notes to keep up with the discussion, and I will help move the discussion along by asking follow-up questions.
  3. As participants, I am asking you to think, listen, and speak candidly about your thoughts, reactions, and ideas. You can help each other do this by using each other’s names and referencing each other’s comments. It is not necessary that you raise your hands during the discussion; rather, the discussion is collaborative in that you try to stay focused on the main speaker and take turns sharing your ideas. Be sure to take notes on our discussion so you can remember your ideas and conclusions later.
  4. Are there any questions about how this is going to work or what your responsibilities are as participants?

2. Begin the discussion with the Round Robin question on Handout B: Paideia Seminar Questions. This should be answered in a single word or phrase, and students should not elaborate until all have shared. This does not count toward students’ participation.

3. Continue the discussion by opening up the floor for elaboration on the Round Robin question. Based on the direction of the discussion, continue by asking other relevant questions from the “Explore” section on Handout B: Paideia Seminar Questions.

4. Continue the discussion using questions from the “Elaborate and Apply” section on Handout B: Paideia Seminar Questions. If you are using the fishbowl method, ensure that students in the first and second half of the discussion have the opportunity to answer “Explore” and “Elaborate and Apply” questions during their time.

5. End with the Closing Round Robin question for both groups: “Should Christopher Columbus have his own national holiday in the United States? Why or why not?” Students should first all share their “yes” or “no” response, and if time allows, they can elaborate on their answer.

1. After the discussion, students should complete Handout C: Paideia Seminar Reflection. If time allows, students may reflect as a group on the experience of the Paideia Seminar format and how well they think they did as individuals and as a class. Students should also reflect on how they wish to continue to grow in this kind of activity in the future.

2. Students should be assessed on their participation using Handout D: Paideia Seminar Rubric.