Curriculum Tie-in

Think Like Socrates: Middle Grade Readers and Socratic Discussion

A teaching tactic from antiquity…in the MG classroom, library, homeschool group, summer reading program, or book club? Absolutely! Perhaps you’ve heard of or participated in a Socratic discussion (also called Socratic method, dialogue, seminar, and questioning). It’s been a great way to get learners thinking, listening, and expressing since Socrates encouraged his students to do the same in Ancient Greece!

Socratic discussion allows each group member to contribute ideas and to listen to the ideas of others, while thinking critically about an open-ended topic or question. Even elementary students can become skilled in the techniques of Socratic discussion—and middle graders, with their developing abilities in complex thinking and making connections, are excellent candidates for this activity. In a Socratic discussion on a book, chapter, or reading passage, middle grade readers have the chance to articulate their ideas and serve as active listeners to other readers doing the same.

What are the goals with Socratic discussion in a reading group? Whether you are a librarian, a teacher, a book club guide, a homeschooling parent, or a summer program facilitator, Socratic discussion can fulfill many reading goals for your group of middle graders:

  • provide readers with an opportunity for sharing ideas;
  • promote critical thinking skills;
  • demonstrate how each reader’s takeaway from a book can be different, and to teach acceptance of differing viewpoints;
  • allow an outlet for a variety of levels of thinking, listening, and speaking;
  • encourage and motivate readers through active learning.

How is a Socratic discussion different from a debate? Open-ended questions guide Socratic discussions—the kinds of questions that do not have defined, simple answers. There is no right/wrong, winner/loser, argument/refutation/rebuttal. Ideally, the ideas flow from all readers, and all readers listen and respond when moved to contribute. Readers can disagree with an idea, and offer a different thought for consideration—but unlike a debate, the objective is not to prove the other “side” wrong—because there is no opponent.

Also, while a debate may focus primarily on one issue, a Socratic discussion welcomes new, connected questions into play—maybe even questions that you (as the discussion guide) hadn’t considered.

Some methods for a successful Socratic discussion:

  1. Let readers know at least a day in advance that they will be participating in a special activity called Socratic discussion. They may need a quick briefing on the concept, if it is new to them.
  2. Explain that readers should arrive having read the MG book (or a particular chapter, passage, or part) in advance of the discussion day. (Consequently, Socratic discussions work very well with the “flipped classroom” model.) Each reader should bring his or her copy of the book, for handy reference during the discussion.
  3. If you have a particularly reserved group, you might let them know the discussion question(s) ahead of time, and encourage each reader to bring 2-3 ideas to the discussion.
  4. You’ll need chairs in a circle, so that readers can see each other. If the group is so large that two smaller discussion groups are warranted, the waiting group might need an activity while waiting, or they can enjoy extra reading time.
  5. Create several guiding questions that are open-ended, involve reader reaction, and can be supported or detailed with moments from the reading. Here are some examples of guiding questions for two MG novels I read recently. (Though, as open-ended questions, with a bit of tweaking they might work well for many others too.)

The Crossover by Kwame Alexander

  • Remember that a character can be dynamic or static. Relationships between characters can be dynamic, too. How are the relationships in The Crossover dynamic? (Extension question—how do dynamic characters in the book cause their relationships to be dynamic as well?)
  • How does the format (verse) of this novel impact its storytelling?
  • Choose any secondary character and describe him or her with three adjectives, explaining the moments in the book that led you to your choices.

The Inquisitor’s Tale by Adam Gidwitz (with awesome medieval-style illuminations by Hatem Aly)

  • Whose story is this, ultimately? In other words, if you had to choose, which one (and only one) character is the book mostly about—one of the three children, one of the storytellers, someone else? What events and/or character reactions lead you to feel that way?
  • What theme topic (or theme statement) comes out most prevalently in this story? What parts of the book support your choice?
  • How did the method of storytelling (multiple first-person retellings, each one acting as an omniscient narrator!) impact your reader experience? What predictions or questions did you have while reading? 


6. Just prior to the discussion, briefly review these guidelines with your middle graders before revealing or reviewing the guiding question to discuss:

When a reader would like to contribute an idea, he or she does so—the discussion guide does not have to acknowledge him. (Then, how to tell who has the floor? One way: the speaker simply stands to speak. This allows everyone to focus on him or her, and gives a sense of importance to the ideas being contributed. If two or more readers stand at the same time—what a great problem to have!—establish an easy, impartial rule for speaking first, such as who has the earliest (or latest) birthday date in the calendar year.)

Acknowledge other readers’ ideas, and reference the speaker by name. (Providing readers with some leads to use as models in formulating their verbal contributions allows even shy speakers to confidently contribute an idea, and encourages the forming of good discussion habits: “I agree with what John said about….” “I think another way Emma’s idea shows up in this chapter is….” “I hear what Caitlyn is saying and another way of putting it might be….” “I disagree with Hayden, because I think that character…..”)

7. After these reminders, reveal or review the question for discussion, and invite the ideas: “Who would like to begin?” Your role as a guide can be challenging—because now, you mostly need to keep quiet! Interject a guiding comment if clarity is needed—“Who can restate in your own words the idea Brianna mentioned?”—or to regenerate a hook—“Let’s go back to Sierra’s question about the main character. Any thoughts on that?” However, refrain from offering your own ideas or introducing any new content in the middle of the discussion.

Also, bring a speaker back on track if he or she drifts into lengthy personal storytelling. A quick mention of an individual experience is great to show connections—“That scene reminds me of when I took this long road trip across the state”—but an overly detailed recounting of a family vacation stalls the discussion.

8. Allow the discussion to pick up tangential ideas and new questions, as long as the readers are engaging in critical thinking about the book.

9. Wrap up the discussion when new ideas begin to wane—and before interest in the question or topic fades. Interest gained from the discussion motivates readers into the next chapter or book, which hopefully drives additional interest going into the next discussion.

With a little practice and guidance, middle grade readers can benefit from and enjoy this classical technique!

STEM Tuesday All About Conservation – In the Classroom


This month’s STEM Tuesday Theme is All About Conservation. Click here to see the list of books chosen by our STEM Tuesday Team for the month of April.

Here are a few ways to use this month’s books in the classroom, extending learning beyond simply reading. Enjoy these suggestions, and as always, we welcome your additional suggestions in the comments below!

Explore our National Parks. 

Park Scientists: Gila monsters, Geysers, and Grizzly Bears in America’s Own Backyard by Mary Kay Carson, with photographs by Tom Uhlman, will take readers to three National Parks that deliver on the promise of adventure!

  • Use this fact-packed book to chart the differences between plants and animals found in Yellowstone National Park, Saguaro National Park, and Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Discuss habitats, climate, altitude, and other factors that influence what species thrive where.
  • Map it out. Use map pins to locate all of America’s National Parks. Find the distance from your school, home, or library to the nearest National Park. Which park is the farthest from you? Discuss reasons why some National Parks receive more visitors than other.
  • In 2016, the National Park Service celebrated its 100th anniversary. Embark on a fact-finding mission to learn who started the park system and why. What are our oldest parks? Newest? Largest? Smallest? Are any in danger of being shut down? What impact does our park system have on the conservation of native species in America?

A Whale of a Tale!

Whale Quest: Working Together to Save Endangered Species by Karen Romano Young offers an in-depth and up-close look a one of the ocean’s most intriguing animals.

Check out the Whale Guide Starting on page 104, the author provides detailed profiles of the world’s most watched whales.

Make a game of it. Middle-graders love trading cards, and The Phylo(mon) Project offers printable trading cards and games that will make whale research fun and interactive. Find them right here.

Geoengineering Earth’s Climate: Resetting the Thermostat  by Jennifer Swanson (who happens to have been the mastermind behind STEM Tuesday here at The Mixed-Up Files of Middle-Grade Authors) takes a careful and objective look at all sides of a modern and, often politically-charged, topic.  Swanson asks straight out: Is geoengineering too risky? Or is it our best hope of survival?”

Hold a classroom debate:  Middle graders are the perfect age to introduce the idea that there are two sides to most issues. Divide into two groups, one that will highlight the positive contributions of geoengineering and one that will point out its harmful effects.  Using carefully-designed rules for classroom debate (ones that include respect for others’ opinions, careful listening, and an understanding that audience members may come to differing conclusions), hold a classroom debate. Invite another middle-grade class to listen in. Take a pre-debate poll and a post-debate poll. Analyze listeners’ knowledge and feelings about geoengineering before and after hearing both sides of the issue.  For a great, recent article about how to run a middle school classroom debate, click here. 

A perfect fiction pairing to this month’s topic!

Endangered  by Eliot Schrefer is a fictionalized account of a young girl’s experiences growing up in the Democratic Republic of Congo and her unexpected affection for a small bonobo named Otto.

After reading the book, take a look at these video resources for more information about this fiction tale, steeped in fact.

Librarian Preview: Endangered

Scholastic Book Clubs Interview with Eliot Schrefer

Eliot Plays King of the Mountain with Bonobos

Tool Use Among Bonobos

Join the CONSERVATION conversation!

What books are you reading that fit into this month’s STEM Tuesday Theme: All About Conservation?  What classroom activities have you done that were a hit with middle-grade learners? Leave a comment below! We love hearing from you!

This week’s STEM Tuesday post was prepared by

Michelle Houts delights in the wild and wacky side of finding fun facts for young readers. She writes both fiction and nonfiction and often finds the nonfiction harder to believe than the fiction. Find her on Instagram and Twitter @mhoutswrites and on the web at

April New Releases

While April is supposed to bring showers, let’s all hope it actually brings good weather to some places across the country. But, if you do find yourself inside on a rainy day, check out some of these amazing new books. They are sure to delight!

Let’s start with a big Congrats to two of our very own MUF members, Michelle Houts and Tricia Springstubb, for their new books!

Support Independent Bookstores - Visit IndieBound.orgCount the Wings by Michelle Houts ( Ohio University Press)

When you look at a bird, do you see feathers and a beak? Or do you see circles and triangles? Artist Charley Harper spent his life reducing subjects to their simplest forms, their basic lines and shapes. This resulted in what he called minimal realism and the style that would become easily recognized as Charley Harper’s. Art fans and nature lovers around the world fell in love with Harper’s paintings, which often featured bright colors and intriguing nature subjects. Count the Wings is the first book for middle-grade readers about Harper’s life and work.

Cody and the Heart of a Champion by Tricia Springstubb (Candlewick Press)

What secret is Spencer keeping? Will Wyatt and old P.U. finally become boyfriend and girlfriend? Why does Pearl listen to that big boss Madison? Cody’s got a lot to figure out in the fourth and last book in this lively, award-winning series about a diverse cast of characters and their adventures.


Rebound by Kwame Alexander (HMH BFYR)

From the New York Times bestselling author Kwame Alexander comes Rebound, a dynamic novel in verse and companion to his Newbery Award-winner, The Crossover, illustrated with striking graphic novel panels.

Before Josh and Jordan Bell were streaking up and down the court, their father was learning his own moves. In this prequel to Newbery Medal winner The Crossover, Chuck Bell takes center stage, as readers get a glimpse of his childhood and how he became the jazz music worshiping, basketball star his sons look up to.


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Warriors: A Vision of Shadows #5: River of Fire by Erin Hunter (Harper Collins)

Erin Hunter’s #1 bestselling Warriors series continues in A Vision of Shadows #5: River of Fire. This hardcover edition includes a double-sided jacket with a bonus poster!

StarClan’s prophecy has been fulfilled, and the long-lost SkyClan has returned to its rightful place among the other four warrior Clans. Many cats believe the danger is past. But after moons of division and strife, ShadowClan is in danger of falling apart forever….


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The Creature of the Pines (The Unicorn Rescue Society) by
by Adam Gidwitz (Dutton BFYR)

A fully illustrated, globe-trotting new middle grade fantasy-adventure series about mythical creatures and their cultures of origin, from the Newbery Honor-winning author of The Inquisitor’s Tale.

Elliot Eisner isn’t exactly excited about starting at a brand-new school in a brand-new town; he’d much rather stay at home and read a book. But things take an unexpected turn when he finds out his weird new teacher, Professor Fauna, has planned a field trip for Elliot’s very first day. Along with a new friend–brave, outspoken Uchenna Devereaux–Elliot gets caught up in a secret group of adventurers, The Unicorn Rescue Society, whose goal is to protect and defend the world’s mythical creatures. Together with Professor Fauna, Elliot and Uchenna must help rescue a Jersey Devil from a duo of conniving, greedy billionaires, the Schmoke Brothers.



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Wedgie & Gizmo vs. the Toof  by Suzanne Selfors (Katherine Tegen Books)

Wedgie LOVES the new micro-pig next door. And she LOVES him! They both like to go for walks and roll in smelly things. They are going to be in the school pet parade together. They are best friends. But Gizmo knows the truth. The pig is Wedgie’s new sidekick. Super Wedgie and the Toof have teamed up to stop Gizmo from taking over the world.

But they will not win! Gizmo is an evil genius. He is smarter than most comic book villains. And more powerful than even Darth Vader! He ordered a flying machine online and he will use it to set free all the guinea pigs at the pet parade.

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Point Guard (Home Team) by Mike Lupica (S & S BFYR)

Gus and Cassie have always been on the same team off the field, but in this third novel in New York Times bestselling author Mike Lupica’s Home Team series can they stay friends when they’re on the same court?


You Go First by Erin Entrada Kelly (Greenwillow Books) Support Independent Bookstores - Visit

Twelve-year-old Charlotte Lockard and eleven-year-old Ben Boxer are separated by more than a thousand miles. On the surface, their lives seem vastly different—Charlotte lives near Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, while Ben is in the small town of Lanester, Louisiana. Charlotte wants to be a geologist and keeps a rock collection in her room. Ben is obsessed with Harry Potter, presidential history, and recycling. But the two have more in common than they think. They’re both highly gifted. They’re both experiencing family turmoil. And they both sit alone at lunch.


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The Backward Season (Wishing Day) by Lauren Myracle (Katherine Tegen Boooks)

Now that her sisters Natasha and Darya have had their turn, Ava Blok finally gets her Wishing Day. But after seeing the unintended consequences of the wishes her sisters made, she’s not sure what to wish for. The only thing she’s certain of is that it’s her job to set things right.



Hopeful that she can put her broken family back together, and eager to prove her pessimistic older sisters wrong, Ava realizes that fixing the future means changing the past. Will the journey her wishes take her on end up costing her everything?