No Series: Socratic Seminar: The "N-Word"


Common core State Standards

  • ELA:  English Language Arts
  • RI:  Reading Standards for Informational Text 6-\x80\x9312
  • 11-12:  11th & 12th Grades
  • 7: 
    Integrate and evaluate multiple sources of information presented in different
    media or formats (e.g., visually, quantitatively) as well as in words in order to
    address a question or solve a problem.

Download Common Core State Standards (PDF 1.2 MB)


Common core State Standards

  • ELA:  English Language Arts
  • SL:  Speaking and Listening Standards 6-12
  • 11-12:  11th & 12th Grades
  • 1c: 
    Initiate and participate effectively in a range of collaborative discussions (one on
    one, in groups, and teacher-led) with diverse partners on grades 11-12 topics,
    texts, and issues, building on others'\x80\x99 ideas and expressing their own clearly and

    a. Come to discussions prepared, having read and researched material under
    study; explicitly draw on that preparation by referring to evidence from texts
    and other research on the topic or issue to stimulate a thoughtful, well reasoned
    exchange of ideas.

    b. Work with peers to promote civil, democratic discussions and decision making,
    set clear goals and deadlines, and establish individual roles as

    c. Propel conversations by posing and responding to questions that probe
    reasoning and evidence; ensure a hearing for a full range of positions on a
    topic or issue; clarify, verify, or challenge ideas and conclusions; and promote
    divergent and creative perspectives.

    d. Respond thoughtfully to diverse perspectives; synthesize comments, claims,
    and evidence made on all sides of an issue; resolve contradictions when
    possible; and determine what additional information or research is required
    to deepen the investigation or complete the task.

Download Common Core State Standards (PDF 1.2 MB)


Common core State Standards

  • ELA:  English Language Arts
  • SL:  Speaking and Listening Standards 6-12
  • 11-12:  11th & 12th Grades
  • 2: 
    Integrate multiple sources of information presented in diverse formats and
    media (e.g., visually, quantitatively, orally) in order to make informed decisions
    and solve problems, evaluating the credibility and accuracy of each source and
    noting any discrepancies among the data.

Download Common Core State Standards (PDF 1.2 MB)

Socratic Seminar: The "N-Word"

Lesson Objective: Use textual evidence to evaluate arguments presented in articles
Grades 9-12 / ELA / Analysis
ELA.RI.11-12.7 | ELA.SL.11-12.1c | ELA.SL.11-12.2


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Discussion and Supporting Materials

Thought starters

  1. Ms. Wu says "Whoever is doing the talking is doing the learning." How can you facilitate learning through speaking in your own classroom?
  2. Why is it helpful to explicitly focus on academic transitions?
  3. What can you learn from Ms. Wu about using the Common Core when lesson planning?


  • Private message to Mon de Souza
Hi Esther! I'm so excited to try your version of the Socratic Seminar with my Gr. 11's, in 2 weeks. Quick question: Who prepares the Listening Evaluation/exit card? Which of the supporting documents does this refer to? TIA
Recommended (0)
  • Private message to Chrishan David
I think that this is a powerful model to engage students in a challenging task that asks them to be uncomfortable but respectful and knowledgable. Thank you for inspiring other educators to engage in conversations that may be difficult but relevant, timely and high interesting for students. I am excited to try it next week. Thank you for lending the supporting materials as well.
Recommended (0)
  • Private message to Esther Wu
Hi All, some of you have written and asked for the supporting seminar documents in Google Doc form. Here is a link to a Google Drive folder that contains the documents. Please copy and adapt for your use. Let me know if you need anything. Link:
Recommended (2)
  • Private message to Christopher Rodriguez
Marion, Also, if it was not clear in my previous comment, thank you for your opinion. As you said, this is an important discussion to have, and I appreciate your perspective.
Recommended (0)
  • Private message to Christopher Rodriguez
Ms. Wu, Thank you for your thorough response. These exchanges are why I love being an educator. This is what I’m wrestling with right now: “Helping a student realize that their opinion on the n-word as a non-Black student carries less weight or having them question whether this discussion is one we should even be having in the first place as a result of engaging with the writings of Gloria Naylor, Leonard Pitts, Jr. and evaluating multiple viewpoints presented by classmates—I believe this is far more powerful than my telling them to stay in their lane or avoiding the topic altogether.” I completely agree with the notion that it is much more effective to have a student reach a conclusion than to provide it for them. In her book Teaching to Transgress, bell hooks describes a similar scenario in which she hosted a seminar for predominantly white professors to discuss issues of diversity: “Together, we decided to have a group of seminars focusing on transformative pedagogy that would be open to all professors. Initially, students were also welcome, but we found that their presence inhibited honest discussion. On the first night, for example, several white professors made comments that could be viewed as horribly racist and the students left the group to share what was said around the college. Since our intent was to educate for critical consciousness, we did not want the seminar setting to be a space where anyone would feel attacked or their reputation as a teacher sullied. We did, however, want it to be a space for constructive confrontation and critical interrogation.” The connection that I see between your statement and hooks’ anecdote is this: all people, including people who are not marginalized, need spaces to critically work through subconscious, ingrained, and oppressive ideologies, and sometimes, that results in necessary conflict that leads toward healing. I am totally for that, one-hundred percent. This is what still concerns me though. Let me rewrite some of the comments made by the students here (excuse me if the comments are not verbatim): “By saying that the Black community can say it and not the White community will create more tension.” “Why should some people be able to use it even though every time they say it they run the risk of hurting someone else?” “I feel that it’s too hurtful and we shouldn’t be using the word.” Much of the discussion, although it seems that your original intent is a general discussion about the n-word, seems to revolve around the notion of “should.” Maybe this is a fault by the video editor, who chose to highlight these clips. A discussion of the n-word in which the students try to reach a consensus about whether we (assuming that we means Americans of all colors) can use it or not still seems inappropriate, as it infringes on the agency of Black people and their decision to use the word or not. The young woman who said the first comment is directly saying that Black people should not use the term, and the students who said the second and third comments seem to be implying it. Again, this is not something that should be discussed. Let’s try to re-imagine this conversation. What if “should” were taken out of the picture? What if it were made clear from the start that the goal is not to come to a decision about the use of the word but instead, as you said, to reflect on its presence in their lives and their experiences with it? What if it were framed more around questions and seeking to understand multiple viewpoints of Black authors regarding the subject? You clearly do this; however, it seems like the highlighted student opinions, and perhaps the ones that teachers watching this video will take with them, are the ones that put a seal of approval or disapproval on the word, which again, is not these students’ decision to make. I believe that these students can still push towards critical consciousness, as you and hooks call for, by connecting the personal and anecdotal to the ideas of the authors they had read rather than pushing toward developing a claim on the topic. Furthermore, it is important to consider the way this video is advertised: “Socratic Seminar: the N-Word.” Truth be told, I first came to this video a few years ago when I started teaching. I wasn’t looking for how to conduct Socratic Seminar (even though you conduct it wonderfully); I was looking for ways to approach that difficult topic. However, this video didn’t provide me with those answers, as it does not center Black students’ voices and I have many Black students. Therefore, I took the approach of asking my students how they felt about the subject while reinforcing that I, as a non-Black POC, did not have the important opinion on the matter; the decisions that I made were guided by those students’ voices (I made sure to approach it in a way as to not tokenize them either), and I emphasized that were I to make any missteps, that they should feel empowered to engage me in critical discussion and guide me towards a better way of handling it. Again, I’m sure you do all these things; however, none of that was made clear in the video. All in all, I think that the nuance of personal reflection vs. argument about the subject is paramount in this case, and that a discussion like this is not best left for a 6+ minute clip framed around an instructional activity. Thanks for your response again, Ms. Wu. Chris
Recommended (4)


  • Socratic Seminar: The "N-Word"
    Esther Wu
    Video Transcript

    ESTHER WU INTERVIEW: My name is Esther Woo; I teach 11th grade English;

    Socratic Seminar: The "N-Word"
    Esther Wu
    Video Transcript

    ESTHER WU INTERVIEW: My name is Esther Woo; I teach 11th grade English; and today’s lesson is a Socratic seminar on the N-word.

    ESTHER WU INTERVIEW: We are currently studying Huckleberry Finn, and in Huckleberry Finn Mark Twain uses the N-word 200 plus times.

    STUDENT: It still has lots of, like, history behind it, and it still diminishes the African Americans and the community.

    ESTHER WU INTERVIEW: Students encounter this word personally in their lives

    STUDENT: My friends, like, no matter their ethnicity, like, I’ve heard different people say it.

    ESTHER WU INTERVIEW: We would not be doing Mark Twain justice if we didn’t look at this word.

    STUDENT: The reason Mark Twain wrote this book was to directly criticize society.

    ESTHER WU INTERVIEW: A motto that I have is, “Whoever is doing the talking is doing the learning.”

    STUDENT: Like, Banner, he like uses it, but like, he says if a white person says it he will, like, beat them bloody or something.

    ESTHER WU INTERVIEW: The more students talk, the more responsible that they are for their learning, the more they give each other feedback, the more they learn.

    STUDENT: By saying that, like, only black community can say it, and not the white community, I think that, like Aaron said before, that it will create more tension.

    ESTHER WU INTERVIEW: And I see my role as helping them do the work.

    STUDENT: I think it’s also important how person uses the N-word. Say, like, offensively.

    ESTHER WU INTERVIEW: There are three big roles that students have in a Socratic Seminar. Every student ends up doing all three roles – speaker, listener, general evaluator. The speakers are the students who sit in the inner circle, and they have an organic discussion around the texts.

    STUDENT: Why should some people be able to it, even though every time they say it they run the risk of hurting someone else?

    ESTHER WU INTERVIEW: The coach is assigned to a specific student in the inner circle, and they are listening for the comments that students are making, the examples that they’re using. Their goal is to help the student at halftime to become an even more effective speaker.

    STUDENT: So yeah, just try to use a transition, maybe another quote.

    ESTHER WU INTERVIEW: And the general evaluators, there are actually multiple roles. The comment counter, counting how many times students are speaking.

    STUDENT: Seraphine and Megan, try to, like, voice your guys’ opinions a little more…

    ESTHER WU INTERVIEW: The transition tracker, who’s keeping track of the academic transitions that we’re working on.

    STUDENT: Aaron used a transition where he summarized the discussion…

    ESTHER WU INTERVIEW: A quote tracker, someone who’s keeping notes on the quotes that are being cited.

    STUDENT: They’re kinda using the same stuff, and it’s kinda getting a little repetitive.

    ESTHER WU INTERVIEW: We also have a student who’s doing what I call “big board,” who is literally keeping track of the big thematic questions and ideas in the conversation.

    STUDENT: Honestly, the biggest one was probably, “If the meaning was changed, could the word should be used by anyone?”

    ESTHER WU: Before we do our seminar, I’d like for us to do some goal setting today.

    STUDENT 1: I just said I would like to see more “I disagree” statements with explanations as to why.

    STUDENT 2: You know how we had the Oprah disccusion? I think that we can connect that with what we’ve been—like the articles we’ve been reading.

    ESTHER WU INTERVIEW: The goal for the class is three-fold. There’s a reading goal, a speaking goal, and a listening goal. The reading goal is for students to be able to evaluate the complexity of the argument in a packet of articles that they read.

    ESTHER WU INTERVIEW: Speaking, they need to contribute in a collaborative and diverse discussion with partners and to support their ideas with text.

    ESTHER WU INTERVIEW: And finally, the listening goal is for students to evaluate their classmates’ comments according to what they read in the text.

    ESTHER WU: Alright so here we go. We’ve got fifteen minutes to start. This is your conversation. You may use anything from our packet, as well as from the Oprah film that we watched, as well as your personal experience.

    STUDENT 1: I’m most in agreement with Leonard Pitts, Junior’s, article, that the N-word has no place in society. I feel that it’s too hurtful, um, and we shouldn’t be using the word.

    STUDENT 2: I agree with you, Drew. Um, even Naylor acknowledges this when she says, “If the word was to disappear totally from the mouths of even the most liberal of white society, no one in that room was naïve enough to believe it would disappear from white minds.” Maybe it can’t be reformed and therefore it should not be incorporated into our society.

    STUDENT 3: Well, I have to disagree with both you and Drew, ‘cause, like, as Naylor said, I don’t think the word is gonna disappear. Like, in her own family, she’s starting the transition to mean, like, a, like a term of endearment and, like, a much more nicer meaning than it used to be.

    STUDENT 4: Yeah, I agree with Cannon. Because, I can see why Drew and Aaron think that we should stop using the word altogether, because it has such negative connotations with it. But just because you stop saying a word doesn’t mean that people—those ideas won’t still be around.

    ESTHER WU INTERVIEW: So during a Socratic seminar we have half time.

    STUDENT: I think you should look into your article more, and use that to kinda synthesize.

    STUDENT: Find transitions here, and then just use them while you’re speaking.

    STUDENT: You only talked once, though, and I think that’s one thing we can improve on in the next half.

    ESTHER WU: So let’s check in with our transition tracker.

    STUDENT: We’ve used a lot of proficient transitions, mostly, like, “I agree/disagree with this person’s ideas because…”

    ESTHER WU: What do you recommend in terms of our getting more advanced transitions out there?

    STUDENT: Bringing in the quotes and also pointing out more, like, fallacies in different arguments.

    ESTHER WU INTERVIEW: The common core has become a part of my teacher DNA, and it provides the blueprint for a unit where we read, we speak, we listen, we write and work on language. And those are the four big umbrellas of the common core. And I really like that sequence because it makes sense for students. It is logical and it provides a scaffolding for students to be able to produce some sort of piece of writing at the end that takes into account all the reading they’ve done or all those conversations that they’ve had in speaking and listening.


School Details

Mountain View High School
3535 Truman Avenue
Mountain View CA 94040
Population: 1871

Data Provided By:



Esther Wu
English Language Arts / 9 10 11 12 / Teacher


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