Socratic Seminar: Organization and Surface Features

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks Socratic Seminar

Ellie Wiseman conducted a Socratic Seminar in her AP classes this week where students were asked to study the writerly skills used by Rebecca Skloot in the text The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.

Her handout reads, “The book is an example of what good writers do.  We should take it as an example text to follow when we write; therefore, we are going to analyze the book in multiple ways, and we are going to do so in Socratic Seminar format so we can build on one another’s knowledge, ideas and insights.”

The seminars lasted for four days and focused on the following areas, one each day:

  • Rhetorical Situation where students discussed: exigence, audience, and purpose
  • Appeals and Tone where students discussed: appeals to logos, pathos, and ethos
  • Organization and Surface Features where students discussed: organization, diction, imagery, and figurative language
  • Narrative Techniques where students discussed: dialogue, setting, structure, pacing, description and multiple plot lines among other factors

Each day, students in the inner circle were “speakers” who answered and extrapolated on predetermined questions and the one’s on the outer circle were “listeners” who took notes which they turned in to the teacher at the end of each period.

The day I visited, they were discussing “organization and surface features.”  Students analyzed the author’s choice to utilize a chronological story with, in a student’s words, “blasts from the past” interspersed through the text.  Students supposed that when there was a flashback or shift in chronological structure, it was to show how the past affected what was happening in the “present” of the book.  Others suggested that the shift in time structure was utilized to emphasize important plot or character elements in the text.

The conversation I heard directly related to the CCS about pacing, multiple plot lines and narrative structure in a very organic way.

In addition, analyzing the writerly choices of published authors provides a wonderful context for students to study what “real writers” do and why they do it in order to improve their own writing.  It is a relevant way to examine a text beyond critical analysis for literary themes.

Here are some additional resources:

  • Here is Rebecca Skoot’s website with numerous resources for teachers studying the book with students.
  • Here is a source about the use of mentor texts and prompts for better student writing: Deeper Writing: Quick Writes and Mentor Texts to Illuminate New Possibilities by Robin Holland.  The mentor texts are sometimes based in form and sometimes theme, but they always provide a wealth of inspiration.  I have had the pleasure on numerous occasions to write based upon Robin’s prompts and mentor texts, and it is always an engaging and revealing experience for me.  Holland taught at the elementary level, but even her picture book choices are often challenging in regards to theme and inspiring in regards to writing style; she uses many of them with adults as well as children.
  • Here is a link to Holland’s blog.  She provides many useful resources to educators of students from kindergarten through high school.  I especially enjoyed, or was touched by, this post which gathered texts based in the theme of death and dying.
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