Continuing Virtual Seminars

salvēte, amīcī! Today, as promised, we’ll look at the Continuing Virtual Seminar, the part of the Tres Columnae system that is most directly focused on

  • the Paideia strand called Understanding;
  • the curricular strands called Connections and Comparisons; and
  • the Community part of our Joyful Learning Community model.

But what exactly is a Continuing Virtual Seminar? How does it work logistically? And how would it actually do all these things? These are the questions I hope to answer in today’s post. Then, in tomorrow’s post, we’ll start to look at a whole sample Lectiō from early in Cursus Primus of Tres Columnae. We’ll follow the Knowledge, Skills, and Understanding that are developed; consider exercises and assessments; and envision the Continuing Virtual Seminar with which the Lectiō culminates. I do hope you’ll enjoy the process!

Today, however, we’ll look in detail at the Continuing Virtual Seminar. The idea comes from the Paideia model of instruction, in which the “Paideia seminar” (or its close cousin, the “Socratic seminar”), is the key to Understanding and receives 15-20% of all instructional time. (By contrast, in the Paideia framework, didactic instruction that builds Knowledge takes about 15-20% of instructional time, while Intellectual Coaching to develop Skill takes the remaining 60-70% of the time.)

For our friends at Paideia, the seminar is conceived as “a collaborative intellectual dialogue facilitated with open-ended questions about a text.” I love this definition and use it with my face-to-face students every time we engage in such a conversation. Let’s take a moment to look at each element of the definition:

  • By collaborative, of course, we mean that everyone works together to build and increase his or her understanding;
  • By intellectual, we mean that the conversation focuses on important ideas (the folks at Paideia actually have a list – not exhaustive, but still quite lengthy – of important Ideas and Values that one might discuss in a seminar);
  • By dialogue, we mean a conversation in which people take turns, as equals, speaking and listening to each other, as opposed to a typical “classroom discussion” in which the teacher mediates all the conversations;
  • By facilitated, we mean that the teacher (or other seminar leader) helps (and occasionally guides) participants to deepen their own understanding, rather than imposing his or her own understanding on the learners;
  • By open-ended questions, of course, we mean questions that have many possible right answers (but we don’t necessarily mean questions where all possible answers are right); and
  • By about a text, we mean several things.
    • A text might be a written document, but it might also be an artwork, a piece of music, or even a shared experience of some kind.
    • The folks at Paideia don’t put much emphasis on the word about, but as I’ve led seminars over the years with face-to-face students, I’ve come to realize that it has two distinct, and equally important, meanings in the context of a seminar (virtual or otherwise).
      • First, of course, it means “regarding or related to” (as in the sentence, “We talked about it”).  So the conversation is centered on the important ideas, values, and issues inherent in the text itself.
      • Second, it means “circling or moving around” (as in the sentence “He was walking about”).  So the conversation is, in some ways, a dance in which participants relate the text to their own lives and experiences, moving constantly from a direct consideration of the text to its implications in their own lives, and back again.

Here’s an overview of the Paideia seminar cycle:

  1. A seminar begins with pre-seminar activities that focus participants’ attention on the content (specifically, some of the important ideas and values in the text) and on the process of the seminar.
  2. Then the facilitator asks an Opening question, which invites all participants to respond to at least one major idea or value in the text. The conversation continues as participants respond to each other’s ideas.
  3. As needed, the facilitator asks (prepared or spontaneous) questions during the Core of the seminar, helping participants connect and clarify their ideas.
  4. As the seminar comes to an end, the facilitator asks a Closing question that helps the participants personlize what they’ve learned.
  5. The seminar concludes with post-seminar activities in which the participants assess the process of the seminar and, potentially, create their own products based on (or responding to) the content.

Even if you can imagine such a conversation in real life, though, you may not be able to imagine how such a conversation could happen asynchronously, in a an online environment like Tres Columnae. Here’s my current vision:

  1. The Continuing Virtual Seminar normally comes at the end of a Lectiō, after the participants have an opportunity to develop their Knowledge (of language and culture) and Skills (with communication, culture, connections, and comparisons) through the other elements of Tres Columnae.
  2. As part of the process, they respond, with written comments, to the stories they’ve read (including stories that other participants have created), and they read and respond to others’ comments (including comments that others have made on stories they’ve written themselves).
  3. When they’re ready, participants read or view the Continuing Virtual Seminar text, which might be
    • a Latin text;
    • a scholarly article that’s available online;
    • a picture of an authentic Roman object;
    • a video, audio clip, illustration, or Latin story written by another Tres Columnae participant; or
    • something else I haven’t begun to imagine.
  4. After they respond to an Opening question, they see others’ responses to that question and to at least one Core question.
  5. They respond, as much or as little as they’d like.
  6. If desired, they create video, audio, or illustrations as well as text (in Latin, English, or some other language) as part of their response.
  7. Other participants, over time, respond in turn, building a conversation that potentially endures over many years.

That’s why we refer to this process as a Continuing Virtual Seminar: unlike a face-to-face conversation, these seminars can continue for years, and of course they occur in a virtual environment rather than a physical one.

Quid putātis, amīcissimī?

  • What do you think of this description of the Continuing Virtual Seminar?
  • Does it sound practical to you? If so, does it sound desirable? Or would you propose a different way for our participants to achieve the goals we’ve set forth for the Continuing Virtual Seminar?
  • Would it help if you could see – and maybe participate in – an example?

Tune in next time,when we’ll begin to explore an entire Tres Columnae Lectiō, including the Continuing Virtual Seminar. And in the meantime, please keep those comments and emails coming!

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8 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Although I have not taught in a school the embraces the Paideia seminar, I have participated in several seminars intended to instruct teachers how to employ the seminar in their own classes. Whenever I have tried them in my own classes, however, they seem unnatural.

    I am sure that the infrequency at which I have employed them has a lot to do with this. I believe that another reason they don’t always work is because they run contrary to the outputs required in a factory model school. Another reason I have not met with success is that my intellectual curiosity gets the better of me and I participate too much, turning a seminar into something more like pontificating.

    My questions: How can I get my seminars to be more natural experiences? How can I increase student ownership of them? How can I insure a psychologically safe environment that fosters success?

    • Seminars are hard to lead, especially at first, and they can seem a bit unnatural. You’re right, as well, that they run directly contrary to the factory-model school … there’s no right answer! Or many right answers! And you don’t know exactly how long the process will take, or what everyone will say!

      It’s hard, too, to resist the temptation to say too much. A good rule of thumb that my friends at Paideia suggest is that you take the typical ration of teacher-to-student talk and reverse it. So, for example, if you typically talked 70% of the time, you’d talk 30% of the time (or less) during a seminar. Since I have my students do a lot of the talking anyway, I can get away with a bit more talk during a seminar … but I try not to. Now, with my IV’s and AP’s, seminars are usually less formal; they’re more like a conversation at a really engaged book group.

      One thing I’ve been experimenting with to deal with the 3 factors you mentioned (feeling natural, increased ownership, and safety) is a thing I call the mini-mini seminar. It’s entirely student-led and takes place in groups of 4 or 5. They make a small circle, and one person serves as the facilitator or Question Leader, while another records really important insights or ideas the group has had. I’m using them with my new group of Latin I’s and have also used them with multi-level classes (for example, my set of II’s and III’s third period last semester) when the different groups need to talk about different things. At the end, they assess their performance at each aspect of the seminar definition (collaborative, intellectual, dialogue, “about” text) with a simple rubric, which they give me along with the recorder’s notes.

      It’s not a perfect system, of course, but it increases the amount of active participation, and students who aren’t comfortable talking to a group of 25 are often a lot more comfortable in a group of 4. Plus, I’m free of the facilitator role, so I can wander around and listen to the different groups as they talk.

      In the Tres Columnae system, I think the asynchronous nature of the conversation will also benefit those learners who take longer to process, or who don’t want to interrupt someone else.

      I can send you some samples of “mini-minis” by email if you’d like. Thanks again for engaging in this conversation!

  2. I want to add that the asynchronous discussion that a blog or a wiki affords works well with me, although I find that I don’t express my thoughts as clearly as I would like when I rush to enter a comment between classes or during lunch.

    • I understand … both aspects! Of course, one of the great things about an asynchronous discussion is that you can take all the time in the world to respond to it. For example,with this blog, WordPress notifies me about comments by email. I usually read the emails, then think about them for an hour or so (or maybe longer). I then read the actual comment and respond to it. By then, I hope I have a good understanding of what y’all are saying. Sometimes I find that my initial response is completely different from what I end up writing … after I’ve had a chance to think about it, I have a completely different understanding of what a person is actually saying.

  3. Sharing the mini-mini and the rubric used to evaluate them would be of tremendous value. I think I could create my own, if you think it would be more valuable for me.

    • Randy,
      I’ll send you a mini-mini plan tomorrow, from school, if I have a chance. Unfortunately, it’s a crazy day for me, and I’ll be out of town Friday. But you should get it no later than Monday.

      ut valeas,

  4. […] This post is specifically about the Continuing Virtual Seminar, a core feature of Tres Columnae that we’ve borrowed and adapted from our friends at Paideia.  And this one introduces a complete Lectiō, with commentary . All of the stories, exercises, explanations, and other elements of Cursus Primus we’ve examined can be found at the “Alpha Version Wiki,”, where you can find out more about the project and even subscribe, for free, if you’d like. […]

  5. […] Free registration, with the opportunity to comment and to participate in Continuing Virtual Seminars; […]

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