Socratic Seminar & The Big Ideas: On Mars, Wonder, Colonization & Imperialism

Google Mars

Google’s animated Mars drinks water to celebrate NASA’s recent findings.

What are the implications of hunting/searching for life on Mars?

With the discovery of flowing water on Mars, many ethical issues are likely to arise as we consider, “What are the implications of hunting/searching for life on Mars?”  As educators, I think we are responsible for helping students understand, analyze, and evaluate what’s at stake with discoveries like this to ensure they become responsible and curious citizens.

We can do this by bringing the Mars announcement (liquid water!) to the classroom through Socratic Seminar.  Through Seminar, we can connect the news to some of the “big ideas” that run through some of the texts we teach.  This would make students think about the implications of the current event while also helping them understand connections and patterns among various texts, eras, etc. and create a larger context in which they could understand the big ideas in the texts they’re reading.

For resources on Socratic Seminar, check our the Socratic Seminar page

Here’s a quick sampling of some of the issues the news has covered with this finding:

Ian Sample, in his article in The Guardian, “NASA Scientists Find Evidence of Flowing Water on Mars,” quotes John Bridges:

John Bridges, a professor of planetary science at the University of Leicester, said the study was fascinating, but might throw up some fresh concerns for space agencies. The flows could be used to find water sources on Mars, making them prime spots to hunt for life, and to land future human missions. But agencies were required to do their utmost to avoid contaminating other planets with microbes from Earth, making wet areas the most difficult to visit. “This will give them lots to think about,” he said.

And Jonathan Amos’s article on BBC, “Martian salt streaks ‘Painted by Liquid Water‘,” raises a similar issue:

An interesting consequence of the findings is that space agencies will now have some extra thinking to do about where they send future landers and rovers.

Current internationally agreed rules state that missions should be wary of going to places on Mars where there is likely to be liquid water.

A UK space agency expert on Mars landing sites, Dr Peter Grindrod, told BBC News: “Planetary protection states that we can’t go anywhere there is liquid water because we can’t sterilise our spacecraft well enough to guarantee we won’t contaminate these locations. So if an RSL is found within the landing zone of a probe, then you can’t land there.

And here are some issues that we can discuss in conjunction with this current event:

  • 10th & 12th Grades: Colonization: (What happens when we introduce something foreign into a culture/society?  What happens when one culture overruns another? What responsibility to we have to other cultures/lives/places?) – with texts like Things Fall Apart or conflicts with Native Americans
  • 11th & 12th Grades: Language & Bias (AP Language): (Why are each of these news accounts providing different perspectives? What is the impact of their differences in word choice? What can we learn from their differences? Similarities?) – each of the articles below are different.  The CNN article, for example, is hopeful about the “search” for life and includes nothing about the potential sterilization issues that are discussed in both The Guardian & BBC articles.  The Guardian refers to the search for life as a ” hunt.”
  • 10th & 11th Grade: Manifest Destiny & Imperialism (American & Western Studies): (What right does one have to invade or expand its borders? What are the potential benefits and dangers of such an expansion?) – would work nicely after students have some background and in conjunction with political cartoons or other images/texts from the time 
  • 11th Grade: The Unknown: (What is our relationship with the “unknown”? How can not knowing impact how we perceive and react to it?) – pair a discussion of what Beowulf’s Grendel, who represents much of the uncertain and unknown of the times, with “Why are we obsessed with Martians?”
  • 10th Grade: Nature & Wonder: (Why do we go to nature? What happens when we over-turn nature?  What are the implications to interfering with nature? What value is there in “wonder”?) with The Secret Life of Bees & the moon-landing scene (August wants to turn it off . .. some things should be left to wonder – thanks to Sherrie E for this connection) or Ralph Waldo Emerson’s “Nature.” John Muir & excerpts from the National Park documentary might also fit nicely here . . . in terms of the importance of preserving of nature (should we?). 
  • 9th Grade: “The Butterfly Effect” (What happens when we introduce something foreign into nature? What are the possible long-term effects?) – with the short story, “Sound of Thunder.”
  • All Grades: Perspective: Will we become the evil, power-hungry, & destructive aliens of science-fiction fantasies if we seek out life on Mars? (thanks to Sherrie for this one!)

Finally, here are some texts on the Mars findings to pair with the literary:

There are many more possibilities for bringing the issues with Mars to the English classroom. If you develop any of your own, please share them in the comment section below or via email.


Introducing . . . Meme Mondays! This Week: Book Censorship

At last year’s in-service, one of the suggestions for the blog was “Meme Mondays,” and so today we roll out the red-carpet for Memes.

To coincide with Banned Books Week, these memes are all about censorship.

censorship students first amendment self censor thought police

A few ways to use memes in your classroom:

  • As warm-ups to start a discussion or concept you’ll be introducing
  • As classroom rules/expectations
  • As discussion starters, enhancers, or “curve-balls”
  • As prompts for writing
  • In a group or paired with another text, as seminar text (the really good memes)
  • As models for memes students will create (based on grammar, literature, authors, current events, etc.) – Mematic is just one free app available for easy meme-making.

Additional resources:

Banned Books Week: Virtual Read-Out, Bulletin Boards, Reading Signs, Oh my!


Banned Books Week is coming September 27th-October 3rd!

What to do . . . What to do . . . What to do . . .

NCTE’s Virtual Read-Out – An option for independent reading assessment or a book-talk resource

Here’ are the criteria and options for a virtual read-out, as per

You have four video options for the 2013 Banned Books Virtual Read-Out:

1) You can submit a video no more than 3 minutes long of a reading from a banned or challenged book. The video should include information on where and why the book was banned or challenged. You may also add a comment about why you believe the book is important. Please keep your remarks brief.

Here is a list of banned literary classics as well as a list of frequently challenged books throughout the years. You should also check out Mapping Censorship and Robert P. Doyle’s Banned Books: Challenging Our Freedom to Read for more ideas. Banned Books: Challenging our Freedom to Read is available for purchase at the ALA Store or can be found at your local public library.

2) Choose a favorite banned/challenged book and discuss what the book meant to you and how you would feel if someone prevented you from reading it. The video should be no longer than three minutes long

3) A video of an eyewitness account of local challenges can be submitted. This video should be no longer than three minutes long.

4) Create a promotional video for Banned Books Week like the videos featured here. The video should be no longer than five minutes long. The video’s message should focus on celebrating the freedom to read during Banned Books Week.

This information is also available here (the link also explains how to submit a video, which is important).

Using the Virtual Read-Out in the classroom:

  • Independent Reading Assessment (for the quiz or homework/classwork category)

You can complete and submit these videos any time of year, so, for example, if you made a “banned books” a theme for independent reading, it could be some kind of assessment grade or an option students could choose for assessment (under these criteria, it would have to be in the quiz or homework/classwork category) that still assesses, to some extent, whether or not they read the book and allows students to contribute to a larger reading community.  Or, if a student reads a banned book anytime throughout the year, this could be a form of assessment.  I think 2 and 4 could be independent-reading assessments, whereas option 1 could be a pre or during-reading assignment.

  • A pseudo-book talk

Of course, you could also do this (to show them or model a “book talk” of sorts” or your class could create one together if you read a whole-class novel that is on the banned books list.  A third option, if you read a banned book as a whole-class novel, would be to have students work individually or in pairs and “compete” for best video. The winners could have their videos uploaded to the site.  

  • A resource

This link will take you to youtube videos others have created.  These could serve as book talks you show your kids either as models OR to get them interested in reading those books!  It could also be a great foray into a discussion about censorship. 

Banned Book Bulletin Boards – Want help putting one together? Let me know!

Banned books can make a great bulletin board theme or even a “display” for the top of your classroom-library bookshelf.

Here are some ideas (click the image to see it larger):

This bulletin board has “wrapped books” with descriptions of why it was challenged on the outside.  I think it would definitely draw in student interest and later in the year or throughout the year, you could reveal the books.

banned book bulletin board

This one has book covers and titles, and I don’t know what’s “inside” the book cover, but putting descriptions of the book or reasons why it was challenged would be great!


I’ve seen pictures like these compiled on a bulletin board that says “Busted for Reading Banned Books.”  You could have students pose with banned/challenged books (like The Outsiders) that they’ve already read and/or add to it throughout the year as students pick banned books for independent reading.

bbbulletinboard idea

This one has “Wanted” signs similar to the image above along with covers of banned books.  The fire and crime scene tape definitely make my English-nerd heart skip a beat:


This is probably the easiest of the Banned Book Bulletin Boards to execute.  You would just need to print some book covers and get some caution tape . . . and bam! Rad bulletin board:


Literacy Promotion through Reading Signs

Those plastic things outside your door are for more than decoration or common-time availability! They are the place where we advertise what we’re reading so that students can see that their teachers read too. (If you need a plastic sign-holder, let Marcie know!)

There is a banned book themed reading promotion sign that you can personalize to your favorite banned books (and with your name) in the District Shared Directory – English – Reading Signs & Templates. Here’s a list of banned books to help you along the way!

And I created a new, more generic one that might work for you too (it’s on the shared directory in full size and resolution).  I tried to use titles we teach, have in our classroom libraries, or offer as summer reading.

Banned Books poster

Additional resources:

book challenges by reason