Socratic Seminar: Nickel and Dimed by Barbara Ehrenreich (2 days)

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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 Nickel and Dimed:  How to Not Get by in America) by Barbara Ehrenrich 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 this work with economics in part because she deals with a topic outside of the students field of knowledge in a very personal way through lots of narrative; this and her engagingly sharp, honest tone will draw the students in.   Additionally, this has become a canonical book, and in fact the mass appeal of the book offers entry into a rhetorical conversation by asking the question “why was this book so appealing to such a wide audience?”  We’ve been heavily focusing on rhetorical strategies and organizational techniques for developing an argument of late; this question of mass appeal allows entry into these concepts from a full-length book perspective.

Students were required to write reading “logs” for each section, (log assignment is attached Reading logs for Nickel and Dimed.docx), which include identifying “chunks” of text from each section that they found compelling for their rhetorical appeal, explaining why they found these compelling.  Additionally, they had to write down what they thought the central ideas of each section are (to focus on Reading Standard two regarding seeing multiple central ideas), and choose a footnote from each section and explain the purpose of it (this is a specific standard for AP, identifying purpose of footnotes/endnotes).   Besides an assessment of their reading, 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).  

I’m choosing to use this approach with the book because it has been a great success with each of the full-length texts this year (with Shop Class as Soul Craft, Wild, Ready Player One); each one of these has been a compelling, in-depth discussion, so I anticipate similar success with this one.   As with the others, I want to get an authentic look at what they did with the book since it is the first time I’ve used it in a class.  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. . . though I have found in the previous ones that I can’t help it, particularly since I’ve never really had any discourse about the books!), 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 12 students in the class, so I split them in half).  For this particular class there will be a number of students missing today, so I will have the seven who are in class follow the Socratic process for the period, then tomorrow they will sit on the outside as the remaining students participate in the discussion (if anyone during day one doesn’t come prepared with their logs, I will have them sit in on the second day, too!).   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 (on day 2) to take notes regarding things they found surprising (in this case it could be in comparison to the discussion of the first day, since the second day participant will have not heard the first day’s discussion), things they wanted to know more about, questions they want to ask the participants and other comments they would like to add. 

Given that I’m taking two days, it is my hope that each one goes for the entire period.  This will be a new challenge for the students, since the previous seminars were done in one period, with each group talking for around 30 minutes.  Given this, I may have to take a more active role in participating. . . but we’ll see!

Next steps:  In order to give students some historical perspective (and practice reading older, more complex texts), we will read Jonathan Swift and Henry David Thoreau in the coming two days before launching into a research project on the economy.