Socratic Seminars: Desert Solitaire by Edward Abbey (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.


Day 1 Socratic Seminar: First five Chapters

70 minutes

Students have been reading excerpts from the book Desert Solitaire by Edward Abbey for the past couple weeks as part of our thematic work on politics and the environment (I chose to do excerpts mostly because of time constraints this spring; this book lends itself to excerpts, however, since each chapter really stands nicely as its own essay).  I chose this book as an anchor text for politics and the environment in part because it is difficult to separate these two topics in our modern culture, and Edward Abbey does not separate them, either—he is critical of one while talking fondly of the other.  He is very philosophical in a sharp tone which I hope will draw the students in.   Additionally, this has become a canonical book within the environmental activist community, and in fact the inspirational nature of the book offers entry into a rhetorical conversation by asking the question “why was this book so influential to the environmental movement?”  We’ve been heavily focusing on rhetorical strategies and organizational techniques for developing an argument of late; this question of particular 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), 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 chapter are (to focus on Reading Standard two regarding seeing multiple central ideas).  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).  In the last Socratic Seminar on Nickel and Dimed I had a successful experiment of having a full 70 minute discussion with one group each day—I found that the students skills have developed in such a way that they are much better at sustaining academic discourse for longer periods of time.  Therefore, for this book we will involve the whole class in each discussion rather than do the “fishbowl”—they are at the point now that sitting in a circle and being told we’re doing a Socratic seminar is enough to put them in this mode.   

One other thing I will do in this discussion, since we will have more students in it, is to have a rule for a couple of our more vocal students that they are not allowed to say anything until three other people have spoken.  This is to encourage some of the quieter students who will tend to rely on the vocal ones to carry the discussion load without putting any kind of scoring rubric into play.

Day 2 Socratic Seminar: Selected Chapters

70 minutes

Today is a repeat of the last Desert Solitaire discussion (which was actually three days ago, before students spent two days working on preparing their lessons for their teaching assignment) in format, though we will address the second chunk of text, which included some selected chapters and the final three to get a more complete vision of the book.