Slice of Life 2013

Slice of Life Day 6: The Pros and Cons of Debating

on March 6, 2013

ImageMarch 6, 2013


Today we wrapped up our class debates.  Students were in two groups; one group debated whether or not there should be a ban on semi-automatic assault weapons; the other group had the topic of federal funding of embryonic stem cell research. Lots of room for controversy in both topics!

I assigned the groups and the side they would be arguing for to avoid the inevitable conflicts. I told students that it would be a test of their skills to be able to write convincing arguments even though they might not agree personally. Overall, that part went well.

The biggest challenges were during the research process. There are just so many skills a student needs to have in order to effectively conduct research. Due to limited access to the computer lab, we were crunched for time to adequately prepare them for all aspects of research. It became very obvious that many of my students really didn’t understand how to search for articles that were relevant to their topic. As expected, the strongest readers hit the ground running and were working well on their own. My struggling readers were truly lost. I did my best to support them by giving them some websites that I knew would help them, showing them how to scan for relevant information, guiding their writing. Some managed to do okay, writing arguments and providing evidence to support them. But a few were totally lost and just gave up.  In almost every class there was at least one student who chose to do nothing. When it came to their part of the debate they just sat there.  It was very discouraging and I felt badly for their groups. The kids who really tried and did their best, while their group limped along due to students who willingly chose not to do the work. Frustrated doesn’t begin to describe how I felt watching it play out.

But there were bright spots to the day as well. A few students actually performed better than I had anticipated they would.  One boy who is usually rather quiet and shy in class, spoke with such authority and grace, I was floored. Another student showed up in suit and tie (I had asked them to dress up if possible), and he performed magnificently. In his debate reflection he said the debate was “the most fun and engaging experience I’ve ever had at school.” For this student, who rarely admits to liking anything at school, this was a breakthrough.

My AG students did a fabulous job and we even taped one of the debates to post on our AG teacher’s wiki site. They will have a chance to watch the video and make comments. They took the process very seriously and were ultra-professional in their presentations.  Debate is such a natural for bright kids. They really get to use their talents and develop and hone others. I was so proud of them!

I do think teaching students how to debate is a worthwhile endeavor.  Considering the emphasis on argument mandated by the Common Core standards, it fits perfectly in our new curriculum. We weren’t sure how it would work, but we are glad we did it.

Upon reflection, I think we need to build more mini-research experiences prior to doing the debates. Having more frequent access to computers would help. Our limited computer lab availability is a real challenge to adequately teaching research skills to our students.

For those teachers who haven’t tried debate with students, I would definitely encourage you to give it a try. It is highly engaging for students, and it teaches and reinforces so many critical thinking skills.

I would love to hear your debate stories!



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