Socratic Seminar: Wild by Cheryl Strayed

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SWBAT propel conversations by posing and responding to questions and comments from peers by participating in a Socratic seminar.

Big Idea

Socratic seminars are wonderful for learning what students know and how engaged they are in a book or topic.


Socratic Seminar

70 minutes

Students have been reading the book Wild (From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail) by Cheryl Strayed for three weeks as preparation for the beginning of this thematic unit on gender and the use of narrative.  I chose this book as an anchor text for the unit in part because it is a female perspective (the last unit featured a very male-centric book in Shop Class as Soul Craft by Matthew B. Crawford), it is a memoir (to model the use of narrative as rhetoric, a key concept for this unit and in the writing unit that follows), and it is contemporary (it was published in 2012).  Also, my students read Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer as sophomores and we also read a blog post called “A Girl Named Nemo.docx” by Jenny Poplar that specifically questioned why these kinds of extreme nature quests tend to be done by males.  So, this seemed like the perfect book to kick off this unit.

Students were required to write reading “logs” for each section, (Reading logs for Wild.docx), which include writing a summary, writing reflections/responses connecting the ideas to their own experiences and knowledge, and identifying important or interesting quotes, perhaps because of content, but also because they have questions; these will serve as notes for the Socratic seminar discussion of the book.

Sometimes called a “fishbowl,” this format offers students a different speaking and listening challenge than other collaborative group work because, for one, they have an audience, and two, they have to take a bit more of a risk in speaking.   In my experience, the students are able to participate in discourse that probe into a text when they come to the discussions prepared, having been assigned tasks to gather evidence and explore ideas prior to the discussion (thus, the logs), since they are learning how to engage in this type of discourse.  

I’m choosing to use this approach with the book because it was a great success the last time (with Shop Class as Soul Craft);I’m hoping for similar success with this one, particularly since the students will hopefully come in remembering the positive experience last time.  Also, I've never had students read this particular book, so I want to get an authentic look at how they respond to it.  The lack of structure in the Socratic seminar format, the absence of me (I will sit in on each circle, but will only steer the conversation back to a more academic discourse if it gets away too much. . . though some laughter and tangents are part of the process.  Otherwise I won’t really interject substantively), and the fact that the stronger students tend to rise to the top in these, will allow me to get strong formative assessment about their experience and how they connected to the book.  Additionally, the format lends itself to broader discussions than small group work, or even a full class discussion (because the Socratic seminar takes away some of the “is this right” feeling present with teacher-led question/answer discussions).

The basic format is that I have seven desks in a circle and the rest around the outside (I have 13 students in the class, so I split them in half).  For this particular class I will let them self-select who goes first, though in other classes I may make that decision to have more distributed peer leadership.   They are all familiar with the process, so I will simply outline my expectations—that everyone participates in some fashion, that issues brought up start with something from the text, and that any reference to the text includes a page number for reference.  I also instruct the outside members to take notes regarding things they found surprising, things they wanted to know more about, questions they want to ask the participants, and other comments they would like to add. 

A little less than half way to the end of class, I will stop the discussion, have each outside member say one thing they wrote down, then switch groups so the outside continues the discussion (if the discussion was based on a smaller segment of text, or if there was a specific purpose, I may give each group more specific topics to focus on so all members of the class can participate and so the conversation doesn’t become repetitive).

Next steps:  The whole of the book will probably not be covered in one class, so we will pick up some of the topics tomorrow, and I will guide the class specifically to the organization of the book and the use of narrative to not just tell a story, but to develop specific themes and ideas for the reader.