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.


#WCW: Steph’s Got a Crush on Mari Evans

Today’s #WCW guest blogger is Stephanie DeCosta. Here’s her post for her February writer-crush, Mari Evans.

I was introduced to Mari Evans in college; I read “Where Have You Gone” for the first time when I was a single, 19 year-old living at home. Instantly, I had two thoughts:

  1. I liked her simple, colloquial style and pictured her living in Chicago in some swanky apartment listening to jazz on an old record player.
  2. I had no sympathy for her—I wanted to tell her “Get over him! He’s a loser!”

My, how life experience does change one’s point of view.

Since that first reading so much “life” has happened: being completely blind-sided by someone I thought was my soul-mate, falling breathlessly in love with someone who finally treasured me, creating new life for whom I would battle bloody death to protect, hurting so badly over a loss I felt I’d have to keep my hands pressed to my chest for eternity for fear my heart would fall out.

And now I read that poem again. With new eyes…

Where Have You Gone

Where have you gone

with your confident
walk with
your crooked smile
why did you leave
when you took your
and departed
are you aware that
with you
went the sun
all light
and what few stars
there were?

where have you gone

with your confident
walk your
crooked smile the
rent money
in one pocket and
my heart
in another . . .

This time, I have two thoughts:

  1. Her style is not “simple”, but rather—sparse. She has nothing left to give. Not even her words. I picture her living in a small, rented house that she was promised would be “temporary.” Her jazz records still play, but now they skip due to the cracks that appeared over time.
  2. I ache for her. Leaving her was not just leaving her, but everything he had with her as well—children, memories, plans, responsibilities. One person can have a huge and lasting impact on another person’s life.

This is the power and beauty of poetry/literature: although the words never change, we constantly do, therefore it will always yield new reactions. This is why we need to read it.


Evans “To identify the enemy is to free the mind.”

– Mari Evans


  1. Have students write poetry responses to “Where Have You Gone” from various points of view. For example, how would a young daughter respond to this poem? What would an elderly white man say in response?
  2. Have students write an imitation poem: a poem on a topic of their choice but one that imitates the style and structure of “Where Have You Gone.”
  3. Have students find a song that connects to the poem and write a compare/contrast or expository pieces citing lines from the poem and song for support.
  4. Have students, in verbal or written format, respond to her above quote.
  5. Have students discuss the poem in Socratic Seminar
  6. Have students, in verbal or written format, respond to the painting below by Annie Lee entitled “Blue Monday” (LEARN MORE ABOUT THIS AFRICAN AMERICAN ARTIST)
  7. Have students discuss the painting in Socratic Seminar
  8. Have students use the painting as the inspiration for an original poem

Blue Monday

Pre-Holiday Lesson Plans for the Days Before Break: The Year in Review, My Favorite Things, and Current Events

So I thought, since (of course) the expectation is that we’re conducting meaningful activities and learning in our classrooms through the 23rd (despite pep rallies and holiday parties and other distractions), that I would compile some options that might take the thinking/research/planning off of your plate after benchmarks are completed.

Option 1: The Year in Review

The New York Times’s Learning Network features an article “Looking Back on 2014″ with 15 ideas (with links and resources) for having students think about and reflect on 2014.  It also includes “retrospectives” linked from the New York Times and around the web for the biggest stories of 2014.

Included in the links are some resources that could be great sources of inspiration for discussion, Socratic Seminar texts, or Writing Workshop prompts including TIME and CNN’s “Top Ten Pictures” & “The Year in Pictures;” “16 Memes that broke the internet,” TIME’s 2014 Person of the Year, and “The Year in Ideas: TED Talks in 2014.”

There’s also Time’s “29 Instagrams that defined the world in 2014,” shared by Bonnie!

There are a lot of great ideas here that can be literacy-based and meaningful for those last two days of school in 2014! Check them out. 🙂

Option 2: A Few of My Favorite Things

Brainpickings creator and author, Maria Popova recently highlighted Maira Kalman’s My Favorite Things on her site. She includes screenshots from the book that often combine text with art and it might be fun to have students create a visual (with text explanations or titles) “My Favorite Things.”  This could easily be worked on Monday & Tuesday and displayed on bulletin boards and walls.  Have them share and discuss.

You could even create a class, “Our Favorite Things,” where you roll out big paper and have each student choose one of their favorite things to add to the class visual-list as they draw and write together on the floor or wall of your classroom.  It would almost be a class infographic on everyone’s favorite things.  This could springboard from or into a discussion or writing workshop activity where students reflect on the class-list and determine what this list tells them about their class or something that surprises or intrigues them.

If students have to provide a visual with their title and explanation, this could be a really fun and dynamic piece of your classroom decor.

Popova even references and links Barthes’s favorite things – and not favorite things (scroll down for the visuals) and Susan Sontag’s (scroll down for visual).  Lots of fodder for mentor texts here!

Option 3: Current Events (Caution: Heavy): The Taliban’s Murder of 132 Children at School in Pakistan

Here’s the Reuter’s article: Taliban go on killing spree at Pakistan school, 132 students dead.

My goals in sharing this and opening up a dialogue about it would be creating awareness of others  and self, including how lucky they are to be provided an education without question or issue.  The other interesting topic of discussion here could be the power of education.  Why would they target school children?  What is so “dangerous” about a school and children learning?

Of course, we know that education is perhaps the single greatest weapon in history, but our students don’t have any such appreciation for it.  Pair this current event with excerpts from I am Malala or a news story about her fight for the education of young girls and the price she paid for it.  In fact, here is her response to the attack.

This might also be fascinating paired with the TED Talk from Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy, the filmmaker responsible for the documentary, Children of the Taliban, Inside a School for Suicide Bombers, which explicitly shows how the Taliban uses and manipulates the educational system to its political and religious ends.

I know this is a rather heavy option right before the holidays, but it’s engaging and important also.  It reminds me how important the season’s cry of “Peace on Earth” is in the world in which we live.

Iconic Photographs Defining the Century

Hey all!

Karyn shared this great resource: These 75 Iconic Photos Will Define The 21st Century So Far. Everyone Needs To See This.

There are photographs here that would:

  • be great idea-inspirers or quick-writes or narrative writing practice.
  • make incredible Socratic Seminars.
  • work great paired with text to get students practicing with paired texts.
  • be practice with analyzing visual text.
  • be incredible conversation-starters.
  • serve as informational text on current-ish events (events of the last 14 years).
  • (the possibilities seem endless)

Students could even gather photographs that define their last 14 years in preparation for autobiographical narrative (if that’s their narrative assignment for mp 1) or a photograph that has happened since these to add or a photograph or two or three they would argue deserve to be in the list.

Here’s a preview:

U.S. Navy Hospital Corpsman HM1 Richard Barnett, assigned to the 1st Marine Division, holds a child after she was separated from her family during a firefight [2003]

U.S. Navy Hospital Corpsman HM1 Richard Barnett, assigned to the 1st Marine Division, holds a child after she was separated from her family during a firefight [2003]

An indigenous woman holds her child while trying to resist the advance of Amazonas state policemen in Manaus who have been sent to evict natives. [2008]

An indigenous woman holds her child while trying to resist the advance of Amazonas state policemen in Manaus who have been sent to evict natives. [2008]

Three young women from the New York Fashion Week pose next to a homeless man. [2012]

Three young women from the New York Fashion Week pose next to a homeless man. [2012]

Thanks to Karyn for sharing this!

Teaching & Discussing September 11, 2001 with TED

Looking for new ways to have discussions that matter surrounding 9/11?

Check out these TED Talks as ways to spark discussion or as text for Socratic Seminar, mini-seminars, whole class discussion, etc.  Don’t forget you could put these in EdPuzzle and add questions.

  • First, Aicha el-Wafi + Phyllis Rodriguez: The mothers who found forgiveness, friendship – a TED Talk from two mothers, one of a victim of the 9/11 attacks and one of a convicted conspirator in the attacks.  Simply the nature of this relationship – and the nature of grieving, remembrance, suffering – can spark a discussion different from the typical 9/11 discussions we have each year.  We don’t often think about the victims’ mothers and I’d venture to guess that we never think about the conspirators’ mothers.  Here, there is humanity amidst and beyond terrorism.  How does this/can this change how we think about 9/11 13 years later?  Why, in the aftermath of terrorism, should we embrace getting to know people from other countries, cultures, and religions?
  • Second, Zak Ebrahim: Zak Ebrahim: I am the son of a terrorist. Here’s how I chose peace – a TED Talk from the son of a terrorist (one involved in the 1993 World Trade Center attack that killed 6 and injured many more).  Although his father was involved in a different terrorist attack than the one we’re remembering on Thursday, Ebrahim’s talk is still relevant and poignant.  Consider discussing some of Ebrahim’s points about learning to hate (rather than hate being innate to a person or religion) about choosing peace . . . about not following in a father’s footsteps.   Now, 13 years since the attacks, some children of victims and terrorists are adults.  What is the personal, rather than national or international effect of these attacks?  Where does terrorism come from?  How do we choose peace?  There’s wonderful fodder for discussion here:
  • Third, Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy: Inside a school for suicide bombers – a TED Talk from a woman who completed a documentary, Children of the Taliban and spent time inside a school training children to be a part of their organization.  This is a terrifying TED Talk that begs many questions: What is the relationship between poverty and terrorism? (Interesting connection to our own military recruiting strategies) Why does the Taliban target children from poor families? What is the power of education? How do we fight this level of strategic indoctrination?  What is the danger of ignorance? Of relying on others for information?  This would be great paired with either 1 (the mothers) or 2 (the terrorist son) to discuss why we should reach out and know others and/or how we change (if we can) our path [can the young boys in this school change their “fate” the way Zak Ebrahim did?]

As always, if you need anything, want help planning or another brain to throw ideas around with, let me know!