A Socratic Seminar Around the Letters of Elizabeth Porter to her Husband, Moses Porter

United States History/History of American Women

Name/School: Amy Rutenberg (Ardsley High School)
Grade Level: 10-12
Topic: Women’s lives/Daily life in British Colonial New England and the pre-industrial United States

Lesson: A Socratic Seminar around the letters of Elizabeth Porter to her husband, Moses Porter

Overview: Elizabeth Porter, a well-to-do farmer’s wife, was left at home with her young daughter Elizabeth (Bette) while her husband, Moses, went to fight for the British in the French and Indian War.  Students will analyze her letters to him as a rich resource about life in British colonial New England.  Her letters deal with such issues as her husband’s absence, the progress of the war, the effect of the war on her own daily life, the health of herself and those around her, happenings on the farm, childrearing, religion, slavery, and her place in the larger community.  Ultimately, students will use a round table, Socratic Seminar discussion to try to reconstruct her life in 1755 and generalize about the lives of women during this period.

Time: Two 45-minute class periods 

Materials: The letters of Elizabeth Porter and her husband Moses (for more background and context on the letters, visit our Collections page


Concepts (Big idea/central theme):

  • Students will generalize about the lives of women in British colonial New England.

Content (What students should know):

  • Students will understand how the lives of women differed from the lives of men in this time period.
  • Students will recognize the importance of religion in the people’s daily lives.
  • Students will see how prevalent illness was in people’s lives.
  • Students will confirm that loving relationships did exist between husband and wife, even before the notion of companionate marriage
  • Students will summarize the daily workings of a large New England farm
  • Students will notice how thoroughly the institution of slavery was integrated into people’s lives, even in the North
  • Students will gain a working understanding of the disruption caused by the French and Indian War in people’s daily lives.
  • Students will discern how important the lines of communication between people were and how letters were not meant to be private.

Skills (What students should be able to do):

  • Students will learn how to interpret the language of 18th century New England
  • Students will practice digging for the various levels of meaning in a written document
  • Students will act as historians by interpolating, inferring, and generalizing about broader historical themes based on a specific set of documents.
  • Students will use specific written passages from a source to support their findings.
  • Students will become more comfortable speaking up and participating in class discussion.


1)      At the beginning of the first day, give students Elizabeth Porter’s letters to her husband.  Explain that they will have to read these letters carefully and understand them thoroughly.  (In order for a Socratic Seminar to work effectively, students must have an intimate understanding of the source.  I have heard colleagues tell their students to read the documents as they would a “love letter.”  I prefer telling them to read the documents as though they were translating the documents from a foreign language.  They need to understand every word and phrase.)  Give them each a guided reading sheet.  They may work individually or in pairs for the rest of the class period on reading the documents and filling out the sheet.  This is to be finished for homework.

2)      On the second day, have students sit in a circle, each with a writing implement, their documents, and their copy of the guided reading handout.

3)      Start student discussion with a general question such as “What did you learn?”  The teacher should act as facilitator in the ensuing discussion, not as the focus.  Students must speak to each other and ask each other questions.  If possible, the teacher should only work to keep the conversation on task, make sure that all members of the circle are participating, and occasionally ask guided questions such as, “What role did religion play in Elizabeth’s life?” if the conversation begins to lag.

4)      Every assertion by the students must be supported by a phrase or sentence from the letters.

5)      Allow students to take the conversation where they will.  A Socratic Seminar does not need a specific aim, especially when the documents are as rich as these letters.

6)      Assign the assessment activity for homework. 

Evaluation/Assessment: For homework, ask students to fill out a Seminar Assessment form.  This will allow the teacher to evaluate how much the student learned and how successful the seminar was.

Bibliography: The letters of Elizabeth Porter to Moses Porter, 1755, are in the Porter-Phelps-Huntington Papers (Box III, Folder 10), Archives and Special Collections, Amherst College Library.


  • If time is short, the letters and guided reading handout could be assigned the night before the seminar as homework.  In this case, perhaps it might be advisable to assign fewer letters.
  • Before the seminar starts, ask students if anyone did not finish the readings.  Explain that there will be no penalty for an honest answer.  Give these students tasks outside of the discussion circle, as they cannot fully participate without a thorough understanding of the documents.  Sample tasks could include keeping track of the phrases used as support or keeping a running list of the topics discussed.

Social Studies Standards Addressed (New York State):

Standard 1: United States and New York History

1. The study of New York State and United States history requires an analysis of the development of American culture, its diversity and multicultural context, and the ways people are unified by many values, practices, and traditions.

  • Students will analyze the development of American culture, explaining how ideas, values, beliefs, and traditions have changed over time and how they unite all Americans.

3. Study about the major social, political, economic, cultural, and religious developments in New York State and United States history involves learning about the important roles and contributions of individuals and groups.

  • Students will compare and contrast the experiences of different ethnic, national, and religious groups, including Native American Indians, in the United States, explaining their contributions to American society and culture
  • Students will understand the interrelationships between world events and developments in New York State and the United States (e.g., causes for immigration, economic opportunities, human rights abuses, and tyranny versus freedom).

4. The skills of historical analysis include the ability to: explain the significance of historical evidence; weigh the importance, reliability, and validity of evidence; understand the concept of multiple causation; understand the importance of changing and competing interpretations of different historical developments.

  • Students will analyze historical narratives about key events in New York State and United States history to identify the facts and evaluate the authors’ perspectives
  • Students will evaluate the validity and credibility of historical interpretations of important events or issues in New York State or United States history, revising these interpretations as new information is learned and other interpretations are developed. (Adapted from National Standards for United States History