Debate can be used in any classroom. It can be as detailed and formal as the Lincoln-Douglass structure used by debate teams, or as simple and informal as pairing students to research and discuss the pros and cons of an issue. As students identify, research, and argue about complex ideas, they hone their skills in critical thinking, organization, persuasion, public speaking, research, and teamwork. If the issue they debate is something that is important to their families, their communities, or themselves -- as it is in Laura Alvarez's classroom -- debate can also be a powerful way for students to effect change.
Debate in Laura Alvarez's Classroom
In Laura Alvarez's class, debates, like persuasive letters, help the students to academically engage the social issues that affect their lives. The oral debates help students verbalize and flesh out their thoughts. Alvarez scaffolds student debates on issues with great care; at each step, she explains, models, provides graphic organizers, and supports small groups. She begins by having the students identify common issues in their books and in their interviews. The students look at the expectations immigrants have about the United States and the realities they find. Alvarez provides them with a graphic organizer that helps them classify the problems they see under several large headings: safety, education, work, health, rights, language, pollution, and other. This helps the students craft problem statements -- a step many find difficult.
As the students research, Alvarez helps them interpret what they find in books and on the Web. She reads aloud to the small groups, asking them to stop her when they hear something relevant to their problem statement. She shows them how to take notes on these sources. She reminds her students regularly that there will be a real audience for this work: after the students conduct their oral debates, they will write letters to their intended audience.
After the students have researched their issue, Alvarez guides them to detail various arguments about it by handing out a list of and demonstrating the following steps:
The class first works together as a group, focused on one issue. Alvarez shows the students how to compile notes by brainstorming and reviewing their research. In small groups, the students follow Alvarez's steps. Then they practice debating in pairs. Finally, Alvarez invites pairs of students to the front of the class to debate.
- Identify the problem.
- Identify someone who could address this problem.
- Write a thesis statement that states your opinion about the problem and its solution.
- Brainstorm arguments to support your opinion.
- Brainstorm counterarguments.
Tips and Variations for Debate
Laura Alvarez uses a style of debate that suits her students: as transitional-bilingual fourth- and fifth-graders from immigrant families, they have a strong stake in the issues but need support in reading, writing, speaking, and listening in English. Other styles may apply to other students.
The most common formal debate structure is the Lincoln-Douglass style. The following variations are particularly appropriate for middle school.
- The students can identify debate topics themselves, or the teacher can list ideas for them. However the topics are chosen, they should be phrased as questions (e.g., "Should English be the only language of instruction in our schools?"). Remind the students that the test of a good topic is that arguments can be made on both sides of the issue.
- The teacher can help the students identify resources, including fiction and nonfiction print resources, interviews, surveys, Web sites, statistics, etc. They can ascertain the sources' reliability by asking: Is the source an authority? Is the source up to date? Does the source have a "hidden agenda" or bias? Does the source offer logical evidence for its information?
- The students can list pros and cons with a simple T chart, working individually, in pairs, in small groups, or as a class.
- The teacher might halve the class and assign each side a position, or allow the students to choose. If they work in teams, they might elect a "captain" who will facilitate and delegate responsibilities. The teachers might also assign specific roles or subtopics.
- The students can organize their research into major and minor arguments. At the same time, they should consider how to rebut counterarguments.
- The students should rehearse the debate. Depending on the debate's format, the teacher may impose time limits. The students can participate as individuals or in teams. If they debate in teams, members should decide who presents the argument and counterargument.
- The students may stage debates for the class, larger school audiences, and/or community members.
Teacher, Peer, and Self-Assessment of the Debate
- Think-pair-share debate strategy: Each student researches a common topic and spends 10 minutes making notes on possible arguments. Next, the students form pairs in which they share ideas, compare notes, and further their thinking for another 10 minutes. Each pair then joins another pair to share ideas and compare notes for another 10 minutes. If there is time, two groups of four can join for another 10 minutes of sharing. Eventually the whole class regroups to share as the teacher facilitates and takes notes.
- Tag-team debate strategy: A team of five members represents each side of a debatable question. Each team has three to six minutes: each speaker from the team can speak for one minute, then tag another team member to continue. (Any team member can volunteer to go.) No member of the team can be tagged twice until all the members have been tagged once.
- Participation countdown strategy: This strategy ensures that no student dominates a discussion. When the students are presenting, ask that every time audience members raise their hands to pose counterarguments, they indicate how often they have participated. The students should raise their hands the first time with one finger pointing up, the second time with two fingers, etc. After three times, they are no longer allowed to participate. This helps individuals ration their involvement.
Many teachers use rubrics that the students have helped create. In addition, teachers should ask the students to write or discuss debating. Sample questions include:
Objective questions about the debates:
To self-assess the debate strategy as a whole:
- How logical were the arguments? How persuasive? What examples, facts, or other evidence were especially persuasive? How strong were the counterarguments?
- How well was the debate presented? Did the student(s) speak clearly and forcefully with good eye contact? Was the style persuasive?
Benefits of Debate
- How did your research process and debate help you better understand the literature and the social issue?
- What aspects of the debate did you do especially well? Why?
- What aspects of the debate might you do differently next time? Why? How?
- What have you learned about public speaking?
- How did your own ideas and views develop through this process?
- What did you learn about the "other side"?
- What do you hope will happen as a result of this debate? What are your next steps on this issue?
By posing debatable questions, teachers help students think critically about important social issues.
- By helping students research their arguments, teachers engage them as critical readers. With guidance, the students learn to evaluate sources, take notes, determine the relative importance of arguments, and value counterarguments.
- By having a real purpose and audience, the students have more ownership of and pride in their arguments.
- The students see that their views and voices make a difference.
- The students learn to speak persuasively and to listen respectfully.
- The students connect language arts with their worlds.
- Debates challenge the students to understand multiple points of view. They must be able to support their own opinions and others'. Teachers can use the rigor and formality of a debate to make sure every voice is heard and respected. As teacher educator Sonia Nieto notes: "When you put [real problems and issues] in the curriculum, instead of sliding them under the rug, you're better able to deal with them and make them transparent. This is really what education should be about: to look at things critically, to teach kids to engage with the subject matter. And the subject matter in this particular case happens to be their lives."