AP Class Discussion Educational Philosophy ELA Group Work Language Arts Learning Literature Pedagogy Reading Teaching

Let’s BRAWL: Throwing Socratic Seminars out of the ring

*updated 3/19/14 with new resource link on the bottom of this post.

AND HULK HOGAN is getting tossed over the top rope!


When I was a kid my brothers and I loved watching wrestling. The larger than life characters and simple good vs. evil plot line appealed to young boys. About once a year they would have a large event and the highlight of that event was called a Battle Royal or Royal Rumble. There were twenty or so wrestlers inside the ring at once. It was a spectacle. Before the bout started you would see wrestlers forming impromptu teams, working together to knock off the best fighters in the ring and then towards the end it was mano-a-mano. It was the best ten minutes of TV until the next Battle Royal.

I want to capture that excitement, of team and individual competition, in my classroom.

Every year I get a few thank you letters from students. Students seem to thank me for either the general environment I create, or for something more specific that I did for them. Sometimes they’ll even thank me for helping them learn to read, analyze, write, present etc… but I’ve never had a student write me a thank you letter based on a specific learning activity, until earlier this year. Here is a part of the letter:

“Hi Mr. Theriault!

I’m not sure if you remember me, but I had you for AP Lit 6th period last year as a senior. I just wanted to send you a email saying thanks for all the practice in analyzing texts you had in do in those BRAWL sessions with 1984, The Awakening, A Doll’s House, etc. I’m taking a humanities course at UCI now, and the experience I received from those BRAWLS have been so helpful. If your kids now complain about it, tell them it’ll really help them in college. The professors here really make you dig into the text, and won’t settle for any half-hearted scratches at the surface. Today, my professor praised the discussion questions I wrote for our current reading (Epictetus’ The Handbook and The Discourses), and I immediately thought, “This is all thanks to those torturous nights coming up with BRAWL questions.”




Awesome. I’m glad Jenny enjoyed BRAWLING… I hope all my students benefit from BRAWLING each other in class. So what is a BRAWL and how did it get started? Glad you asked.

For the past ten years or so I’ve thought of doing a Socratic Seminar in class.  I love class discussion and class debates and they work well for me, but I figured learning another type of discussion (Socratic) could be useful. Well I was finally ready two years ago so I went to watch a few. After watching a few and talking to students I saw that there were some problems with the traditional Socratic Seminar process. I’m sure some people do them differently, but some of my concerns were:

  • Certain students end up dominating the conversation
  • Some students end up saying nothing
  • Some students just repeat or agree with what others say
  • Some students show up to a Socratic Seminar without preparing
  • Students don’t necessary learn how to analyze the text in a specific way while doing the Socratic Seminar

I’m not saying that Socratic Seminars don’t have value; I’m just saying that I thought I could tweak it a bit. So I thought all summer long and last year I unveiled the BRAWL with my AP Senior Lit class.


BRAWL: Battle Royal All Will Learn– A BRAWL is a team-based competitive Socratic Seminar where students learn how to develop their own discussion questions based on purpose/tone/theme and style analysis and then prepare and answer those questions.

The acronym is based on “The Big Brawl” a movie starting Jackie Chan


And the Battle Royal part is a nod to the Wresting “Battle Royals” I watched on TV with my brothers,

Here are the steps and handouts you need to BRAWL (I’m going to include my concerns, comments, and issues with each step. I’ve only done a few full BRAWLs and I think I can make it even better.

Step One:  You need to teach students about the T3 and SCOUT (links) method of close reading. If you use another method like SOAPSTONE, or something else, then you will need to modify the handouts.

Step Two: You need to have your students in groups of 3-4.

Step Three: You need to find a book that is long enough and substantial enough to support detailed in-depth reading and analysis. My first book for the BRAWL was 1984 and the book I am using this year with Honors Sophomores is A Tale of Two Cities. Since we are doing style analysis in the BRAWL it makes it easier if you pick a book that was originally written in English.

Step Four: Divide the book into four sections. Post a reading schedule for the BRAWL. (Click here for an example of the schedule) You will need four days to BRAWL for each section, so build that time into your reading schedule. The reading for each section must be completed BEFORE you start the first day of the BRAWL for that section. IMPORTANT NOTE: BRAWLs are TIME INTENSIVE. I will only BRAWL with a class once a year. But once they BRAWL they should increase their skill in reading, analyzing, and discussing.

I used to have three days for each BRAWL, but I’ve discovered that they need one extra night to come up with the answers to the questions.  So between the 2nd day and the BRAWL I do something else in class and give them one extra night to work on the questions.

Step Five: Show them an example a completed BRAWL question sheet here is one from 1984. The questions that are highlighted in yellow were the ones I chose for the BRAWL. This year I created a final version of the sheet without highlights and printed it out for every student instead of making them print them out. Here is one for A Tale of Two Cities prior to the edit and here is one after I’ve edited it. Then we read the first chapter together and I showed them a sample question for each of the BRAWL categories. Then I had them work on creating a question for SPECIFIC and COMPARISON and I walked around the room looking for some good ones. Then we shared those out with the rest of the class. Then have them read the first section (however many days that takes) and then you can have them do their first BRAWL.

Here is how it should look:

Day One: Students get in their groups of three or four. They have a sheet of paper with the BRAWL categories on the top and then blank spots underneath. Each group is assigned ONE BRAWL category the categories are based on T3 and SCOUT . They spend the entire period going over the reading with their group and finding questions to post on the BRAWL sheet.  That night they will post their questions on an editable Google Doc. They will earn points for their group based on the number of questions that they post that I either like, or that I end up using in the BRAWL. When they post their questions they need to write down the name of every person in their group and the time they posted the questions.  They also need to put the chapter number/title and the page where the question was found. This is a great day because the students are engaged in discussing the section to make sure they understand it and they are discussing possible questions. One of the very best parts of the BRAWL is the skills the students develop in learning how to ask a great close-reading question for literature. I am doing nothing on this day except walking around observing and answering any questions.

Day Two: This is the hardest day I will work, but it’s hard for only about an hour. I wake up extra early that morning and edit the question sheet. I want there to be about 28-30 questions on the sheet. If you have too few questions then the students won’t be engaged all period, but if you have too many questions, then they won’t be prepared for the BRAWL. Sometimes I end up putting a few of my own questions on the BRAWL sheet, if I think they missed something important.  I make photocopies of the final question sheet (trying to keep it to one side or one paper double-sided). Then students work all period on preparing the questions. That night and for the next night students usually use Google Docs or Facebook or other tools to collaborate and work on the questions together. Some groups split up the questions and some groups work on them all together. One of the worst things a group can do is take so long to finish the questions that they don’t have time to read and go over the answers. Cold-reading an answer from a teammate and finding out it’s a confusing answer is embarrassing during the BRAWL.

Day Three: We work on something else in class and the students finish preparing for the BRAWL that night.  Make sure that before the BRAWL you have each student make a name tag to use on their desk when they are in the inner arena. I just use a blank sheet of paper folded into a low pyramid with their name written in dark marker (they can decorate them if they want)

Day Four: The BRAWL- Before class starts make sure you have a copy of the final questions. It’s helpful to pick out about twelve questions that you want to focus on so you are not wasting time during the BRAWL searching for your favorite questions. You will also want to print out a BRAWL grading sheet for each period with the student names on it by group and a column for the various grading stages. I’ve attached a sample here.

  • This year we tried something for “fun” and I had everyone (the tributes) stand up for “the reaping.” You don’t have to do this. I then called out one person from each group to join the inner arena. Their teammates will sit nearby.  No one knows ahead of time which group member I will pick so everyone is expected to prepare.
  • Students get 100 points each for their group work and 50 points each for the individual answers. This encourages them to try hard and to help each group member prepare for the BRAWL.
  • Everyone in the inner arena will be asked one question from the BRAWL question sheet. I will then write down a grade on the answer sheet (linked above). After the initial answer then other members of the inner circle can add to the answer or debate the original answer. They may do this twice. Not twice per question, twice for the whole BRAWL. When they chime in they pick up points for themselves and their group- so you will see group members encouraging the quieter kids to answer particular questions based on how they feel about their preparation.
  • Once we go through the entire inner arena then I tell the class they have two minutes to find a question on the sheet that the group wants to answer. Anyone from their group can answer. Sometimes the group picks their strongest speaker, and sometimes they pick someone who really needs the extra points. They can pick a question that was already asked or perhaps they want to pick a question that no one has addressed yet. After this part is done we are almost done with the first BRAWL. I teach a 55 minute period. Sometimes we are not done with this last outer circle stage so I always make sure to have nothing schedule for the next day in case I need to continue the BRAWL for 10-15 minutes.
  • That night I post the final question sheet for that section of the BRAWL using a Google Doc that has “comments” enabled. Students who want to comment on a particular question but didn’t get a chance to talk in the BRAWL can use this online document to post their comments. I look at them later.
  • A friend of mine asked me why I don’t have the kids in the outer circle take notes and grade the inner circle. I tell him that they are supposed to be looking for things they want to discuss online later or when they have the outer circle opportunity. But he had a point so I’ve created a Google Survey/Form where students can vote who they thought was the best speaker or had the best answer for that particular BRAWL and they can post a comment as well.  You could look and the voting sheet and discuss the results later if you wanted to. Version 1 Version 2 (coming soon)
  • Then we do the whole BRAWL process three more times until we are done with the book. I always have a final test on every book we read and the test scores after a BRAWL were noticeably higher than usual.
  • This year I am going to post the top five team scores for each class before the final BRAWL to see if that sparks their competitive juices before the final BRAWL.
  • Also teams that only have three members can choose their BRAWL inner circle member for the last BRAWL. I leave it up to them.

Here is what a part of my class looks like on a the final BRAWL day:

Example of a BRAWL day

I have one last observation. Everyone wants to come in and watch the BRAWL thinking that the BRAWL is the main activity, but for me the real learning happens in the two-three days before the BRAWL. Because of the points, the competitive element, the team element, the public performance, the students are engaged from bell-to-bell for those two days (the question generating and question answer preparation days) Bell-to-bell engagement is pretty cool.  Speaking of bells I need to buy a boxing bell and ring that before the BRAWL (I wonder how much they cost?)

I will come-back and edit the instructions as I modify and improve the activity. I’ll put footnotes and dates next to any modifications.


Here is a picture of a student’s prep work to get ready for the BRAWL courtesy of @MrZiebarth who tried the BRAWL last week

Here are the plans for the CP Connected Reading BRAWL the bit.ly is bit.ly/connectedbrawl

*UPDATE: This blog post from Kindled Class is a FANTASTIC Update to my BRAWL post. PLEASE take the time to read: Great ready to BRAWL!


  1. I do what I call a “modified Socratic,” and teach students Bloom’s taxonomy before they have to write the questions for the discussion. Depending on my hopes for the discussion, I assign arbitrary numbers of questions: three “apply,” three “analyze,” and two “evaluate” questions.

    I also have the students in the outer circle (on their name tags) write “the most poignant thing I heard today from my brilliant classmates was…” And sometimes I have them add “and if I had been int he middle circle, I would have added…”

    Thanks for the rules of warfare.

  2. The student email speaks volumes about the long-term benefits of BRAWLing. My hat is tipped in your direction – as a first-year composition instructor, I require students to lead class discussions every single day. Some struggle to prepare and make the discussions substantive, but after struggling, they eventually understand the level of textual analysis needed to lead meaningful discussions. You, my friend, are teaching them this, and I am grateful for that.

  3. Personally, I think Socratic Seminars are more beneficial and efficient than BRAWLS for many reasons. In a Socratic Seminar, everyone has a chance to talk in one session and students can elaborate on a topic as much as they feel necessary. In a BRAWL, a topic can only be elaborated upon in two short comments at the discretion of the teacher. In a Socratic Seminar, students have many chances to speak and they can quite easily make up for it in the event they make a mistake . In a BRAWL, one only has a few chances to get their point across and it’s almost impossible to fix a mistake. Also, students are chosen at random and intimidated/forced to participate in a BRAWL, while in a Socratic Seminar students have a choice whether to make a comment or not. When those who are not willing or ready to make comments are forced to, the quality of the discussion goes down greatly. Students are encouraged to work together and assert themselves in Socratic Seminars while BRAWLS are merely competitions. While a BRAWL might be a beneficial discussion tool for an English class, Socratic Seminars are more educational and more effective.

    As a student who has participated in both BRAWLs and Socratic Seminars, I feel qualified to make such a comment regarding the topic. You can read more about this comparison in an upcoming blog post of mine, “The BRAWL: An Educational Tool or a Fluke?” at:


    1. Looking forward to your post. I wish it was titled “How to FIX the BRAWL, or how to have a BETTER BRAWL”

      I MORE than welcome criticism of The BRAWL. I created it because of complaints about Socratic Seminars, but it’s never a finished project. Instead of debating whether it is useless or not, why don’t you write a post and help me fix it. Read my blog post again, figure out why I created it and then help me make it better. That will then help future students which would be very nice of you.

  4. Love this idea as a way to change up discussion! I feel like mine are getting a little dry sometimes, especially as the year goes on. Did you end up trying it with CP? What modifications did you make?

  5. I am so excited to try this in my AP Lit classroom this year–I have tried “Socratic Seminars” and I have already disliked them intensely. I’ve also discovered that at these higher levels, kids dislike them too. And I always hated that some students just don’t have to comment/participate to be in a Socratic Seminar. It might intimidate some kids to speak out, but these are students heading off to college settings, they need to learn to be assertive and participate!

    My only wish? That there was an easy to print-out direction sheet so I can just print it and start planning! 🙂

  6. When you grade the tributes on their initial answer, what are you looking for? Insight? Textual support? All of the above? At the end of the BRAWL, do students have two grades (a team grade and an individual one) or just a group grade?

  7. Mr. Theriault,

    I had been committed to a socratic seminar model, knowing that it is best practice for our content area. For me, it was always one of those ideas that might be more “best theory” than “best practice.” (*Sigh*). And then, from a need-some-inspiration Pinterest perusal, came BRAWL.

    Not only is it high engagement, but they are engaging at a much higher level. Thank you.

    I implemented BRAWL for a study of The Merchant of Venice, and ran it according to your specifications, except for the BRAWL topics. We aren’t an AP Lit class; rather, we are a writing course that used Shakespeare’s material for its own sake as well as for source material to expand our thoughts on justice and mercy and sacrifice and rules. Instead of using the more technical aspects of literature as the BRAWL categories, I simply used the major ideas and motifs in the play: Sacrifice, Money, Hubris, Individual Control over Destiny, and Breaking Rules. (Side note bonus: we reviewed how these terms were not themes in and of themselves; that they were ideas in need of specific assertions behind them to create a theme.) The only other tweak I made was that I had students create debatable statements rather than questions: instead of “Was the court’s treatment of Shylock actually merciful?” the discussion prompt read “The court’s treatment of Shylock was NOT merciful.” There were two unanticipated bonuses to this: we reviewed how it sounded like a thesis statement, and it set up a framework for their responses. I simply told them they were to do one of three things: agree with the statement, disagree with it, or concur with a previous stance (and we talked about what that actually meant).

  8. How do you have 1984 sectioned into 4 reading parts? I want to try this with my 10thgrade Honors kids in a week or so.

  9. Do you have a rubric for grading the group work and the students’ responses (plus the additional points they get for their add-ons either during or after the BRAWL) during the BRAWL?

  10. This looks awesome! I have a question though. In day one, you state that you have each group complete one category. On day two, you pick 28-30 questions from what they came up with. Here is my confusion. On day 2, you said that you print off the questions you chose, then students work all hour preparing the questions. What questions? Are they completing the other categories? And do they answer all the questions? Thanks for your help!

  11. I’m several years late to the party, but I finally found you! I love the twist on Socratic seminars with a bit of competition thrown in for spice. I’m going to use this with my honors-level eighth graders this year as we study Frankenstein, with some modifications made as appropriate for age/ability. Thank you so much for sharing!

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