Tagged class discussion

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.

Extended Looking: Using Images to Build Theme Statements

I worked with Kristina Claytor and Allie Sberna this week using a strategy learned/modified from the Pages program at the Wexner Center.  This learning activity is one I have utilized many times, and it was a pleasure to work with two patient, flexible and talented teachers trying it out with a new group of students who are learning to “look deeper” and explore thematic connections.

The “product” of the strategy is the creation of a single sentence theme statement that is supported by multiple pieces of evidence from an image students have studied.  Here is the image from which students gathered information.

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This image is from Robert and Shana ParkeHarrison. Here is a link to the original image online.

Here are the learning targets provided to students:

  • I can look carefully and  critically.
  • I can contribute meaningful ideas to a collaborative conversation.
  • I can write a theme statement that reflects a deep understanding of a theme.

I usually introduce themes to students as topics (or “big ideas” if you prefer) plus an opinion about that topic.  Here are some of the “big ideas” or topics students were able to come up with using this strategy:


We explained a theme is one of these big ideas/topics above, plus what they think an author/artist is saying about this topic (his/her opinion).

Example: Topic (Creativity) + Opinion (can require seeing/doing what others may not yet understand).

So a theme statement might be: Creativity can require seeing and doing what others may not yet understand.

Students might support this theme statement with evidence from the text by saying that, “The man represents creativity because he is the only one ‘seeing’ what is in the distance, so he is the only one willing to escape the box.  The others remain curled in the containers because they don’t believe in or have knowledge of this new understanding.”

This is a very difficult concept for students; it takes practice.  They may have to look back at and revise the theme statements after the teacher collects them and gives feedback.  However, this is also an essential skill for literary response.

The following is a handout I have given to teachers to explain the activity step by step.  I have also attached the instructions as a downloadable document at the bottom of the post.

Extended Looking Activity: Learning Goals  

This lesson is a scaffolding tool to help students understand theme in literary works.  The learning goal is to have students be able to write a “thesis statement” for what they think the piece means; they must base it on evidence they have gathered from the piece itself.


Extended Looking Instructions

  1. Look and observe the art – you can move around, get closer etc. Write down observations and questions about it (5 min.)
  2. Discuss the visual image.  What is happening in the photo?  Here you are noting details and making observations, no talk of meaning yet (5 min)
  3. Make connections to and ask questions about the art in writing. What are your thoughts about the piece, what does it make you think of, does it remind you of anything etc.  (5 min.)
  4. Discuss the connections students found in the piece and continue to have students use the evidence they have gathered to support their perspective ( 5 min.)
  5. Introduce and model a theme statement for students.  Have students write a “theme statement” for what they think the piece of art means and support it with evidence from the art itself (10 min.)
  6. Tell them the name and a little about the artist. (I do this the next day and build suspense!)  Does this change your perspective on the piece?  Are you glad you know?  (They usually are not.)


  • Before step five, have students write short form poetry about the art or a piece of narrative
  • Talk about the process of how the art was created and use it to model students own work in writing after the activity

Connections to help students make:

  • Literature and art are very similar and we can talk about them the same way and go through the same process of analysis with them
  • An artist or writer has an intent, but viewer/reader also bring their own experience to the table to create “meaning”
  • This activity shows how argument is developed because students needed to use support for their ideas

This activity was modified from the 2011-2012 PAGES summer workshop for teacher-partners at the Wexner Center, and photography used to conduct the activity was created by Robert and Shana ParkHarrison from The Architect’s Brother collection.

Here is the printable resource Extended Viewing Activity 2

“Zoom In” Strategy Part II: Reflection and Application to Text

After I left Laura’s classroom, she did some really interesting work on her own.  First of all, she had students reflect on the experience in a number of ways and shared these reflections with me.  Here is a picture of the discussion guide she gave to students:


The responses she received showed students making many connections from the activity to working with texts.  For example, students said such text-based skills might be “interpreting” what is not directly explained by an author, “hypothesizing” about what will happen in the future of a text, and looking for “context clues” in texts to determine meaning.

Students also identified that as they continued to look closer and for longer in the activity, they were able to think of the “deeper meaning,” look more “critically” and “wonder” about more things.  In addition, one student said that when he doesn’t understand something he would “ask meaningful questions” about it to help him understand.

Laura followed this reflection by reading the back cover of Of Mice and Men with students and discussing what they might hypothesize the book will be about.  Students made connections to Naturalism and the book cover to make predictions.

Laura plans to continue to build on this activity through examining foreshadowing in the text and predicting future events with students as they read.

“Zoom In” Strategy Part I: Observations and Building a Hypothesis

I worked with Laura Laborde in her classroom using a strategy with the following learning targets:

  • I can observe closely and critically.
  • I can form a flexible hypothesis.
  • I can ask meaningful questions.

These targets are similar to, and could be used as scaffolding for, close reading.  In addition, the activity addresses speaking and listening skills.  Laura and I worked with images instead of text, but I think this same technique is transferable to text.  We also started with the 3-2-1 strategy, and students used the word “looking” to explore thinking about that concept.

There are still a few bugs to work out with this strategy (we only tried it twice), so if other teachers try it, I would love to hear variations!

We used a piece of art from The Great Depression because Laura is introducing Of Mice and Men right now to students, and the image reinforces how individuals were disempowered (like Lenny, Crooks, Curley’s wife and others) during The Great Depression.

The strategy is as follows:

1.  Show a piece of an image. 

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2.  Ask students to write down what they observe
3.  Discuss what students wrote down
4.  Have students write a hypothesis/interpretation for what the image might be and ask a question about the image, specifically, something they “wonder” about
5.  Share and discuss
6.  Show a second piece of the image 

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7.  Repeat step two and three (observation-share)
8.  Ask them to revisit the original hypothesis and revise it evaluating how thinking has changed and come up with another thing they are “wondering” now
9.  Share and discuss
10.  Show a third piece of the image and repeat the process, but this time, maybe ask students to deepen the thinking about the hypothesis focusing on not just what the image is, but also on what it means.  You can begin to talk about themes in this way

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11.  Cont. showing parts of the image and repeated the process until it is totally revealed to students
Have a final reflective conversation about how students thinking changed and why it was important to form a hypothesis but also be flexible throughout the process

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This is ALMOST the full image. Click on the link to the complete Power Point to see the whole thing.

12.  After this process, students were brought back to the 3-2-1 strategy as part of the reflection.  I am going to talk more about this in the second post about the “Zoom In” strategy which Laura implemented on her own.

Here is a Power Point with the images used for this activity:  Zoom In, Great Depression Activity

This activity was modified from Making Thinking Visible.

Socratic Seminar Resources

A couple of teachers used some of Sandy Juniper’s resources (I believe) to run Socratic seminars in classes.  I have tried to gather some of the resources here for you to use in your own classrooms should you choose to do so.  The basic idea for this version is that students come prepared having read and annotated a text, then they participate in an “inner circle” and “outer circle” role throughout the class period. Here is a picture of the set up.  The black stool is the “hot seat” where students can choose to enter the circle to be part of the discussion temporarily.


The inner circle is made of a discussion group.  The outer circle keeps track of the conversation through hard copies of discussion guides.  Here is one student’s example.


Here is an example of Melissa’s scoring.


In the two versions I saw, the teacher chose the questions, but Kristina Claytor has her students write their own questions before they discuss.  Also, Sam Bosse ran his seminar as one large group, and he was the only one who recorded the speaking of each member so they all could participate.

This video shows a ninth grade class that is struggling with Socratic seminar.  It has some really interesting ideas when it comes to students coaching one another.  It also addresses the idea of “wait time” so that students can have ownership of the process.  The seminar topic is the importance of poetic language which addresses a CCS.  On the website with this video, there is also a handout that the teacher used beforehand to prep students for this discussion.

Here is a video about a controversial topic with resources provided for teachers in the bottom right.  It addresses the use of the “n-word” in Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.  In this version, there are specific “roles” students play, in addition to coaching one other student.

Here is one last video that focuses on more of a “debate style” and students “tap one another out” to get new people in the story.  This teacher gives points for using models of “respectful language” to encourage civil discussion.

Here are the actual resources used by teachers:

  • Intro to Socratic Seminar includes the historical context of Socrates and his value and contributions to our modern society.  It is a great introductory resource for teachers and students as it outlines types of comments for discussion and includes learning goals, both of which seem helpful starting out.
  • Socratic scoring can be used by teachers and peers to evaluate students.  One teacher said they only have students record the “types of comments” and not “connections” or else it is too much.
  • If you want the actual questions used to compare Fahrenheit 451  and Into the Wild, please email Sam Bosse for access to his Prezi.

Mashup: Painful Poetry, Cliffhanger Prose, Six Word Memoirs and Existential Questions

I want to begin with a quote from Susan Turley today that I loved, “You should never do a project to please me- always to please yourself, but I’ll just tell you some things I like.”

Her students are getting ready to start their first Thematic Studies projects where they will incorporate non-fiction, analysis of The Lord of the Flies, and public speaking skills.  The brainstorming brought about a lot of really interesting questions to explore for the projects.


If you can’t read them, these are some of my favorites:

  • What elements can deteriorate one’s sense of humanity?
  • What makes an individual able to rise above the social constructs others cannot?
  • What role does ritual play in society?
  • How does society create false realities?

Here are some six word memoirs written by Mandy Fetty’s students.

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This is the official six word memoir website  and here is the teen version.  This NPR story has a gallery of visual six word memoirs on the left which could be used as a visual for students.  You can also order the books if you like your sources in hard copy.

Tim Starkey’s ninth grade class read a story without an ending that got a man’s house burned down and his children kidnapped called “The Lady or the Tiger?” by Frank Stockton.  I also found this video on Youtube of someone reading the story, just in case you don’t have the gripping narrative skills he demonstrated for his students.

In Leslie Harris’ class, students read a compelling poem called My Papa’s Waltz by Theodore Roethke and then analyzed the poem to see whether it was about an abusive father or a loving dance.  I heard many students having genuine debate on the issue and citing evidence to support the claims they made.