How to Structure a Simple Classroom Debate

DebateOne of my teacher resolutions this year is to help students grapple with complexity.  I want them to read both fiction and informational texts with an eye to layers of meaning and multiple perspectives.  Discussion is one tool to accomplish this goal and I’ve told you how much I love Socratic Seminar and Literature Circles, but today I want to talk about using debate in the classroom.  DISCLAIMER: I am not trained in the classical form of debate, which has very particular goals, rules, and regulations. While I respect my colleagues who lead debate teams, I find that many English teachers I know do not know the traditional debate rules and many English students I know do not have the same kind of enthusiasm for every class period that many debate team members have for every debate.  So instead of adhering to the structure, I am just going to offer some advice for preparing a simple classroom debate.

1. Create a clear rubric. RubiStar has some really good and flexible debate rubrics.  Here are some categories to consider adding:

  • Clarity of information
  • Credibility of Sources
  • Rebuttal
  • Rhetorical Strategies
  • Presentation Style (eye contact, tone of voice, etc.)
  • Balance of Team Participation
  • Respect for other team

2. Pick Teams and Roles. Depending on how big the class is, you may need to split up into 2 debates.  I try to keep my teams to a 12 person maximum so that everyone on the team can reasonably participate within a class period.  It is also nice to assign a team captain or two who can help organize information and balance participation. You may also consider splitting a team into a main argument team and a rebuttal team, each with a captain.  This helps structure things without too much teacher intervention.

3. Allow time for research. If you rush the preparation, the debate can easily fizzle with simple heated opinions not supported in evidence. As English teachers, we need to focus on teaching the art of succinct and credible evidence to back up claims.  This is a perfect opportunity.  I usually require students to turn in debate prep so that I can see what they came up with even if they do not get to use it all in the debate.  I encourage them to use and cite a variety of credible sources.

4. Structure the time. In order to encourage participation, have some kind of a structure that students know in advance.  The structure can easily be adjusted to fit your schedule and needs, it is just there as an outline. Here is what I do:

  • Affirmative Constructive Argument: 12 minutes
  • Negative Constructive Argument: 12 minutes
  • Affirmative Rebuttal: 6 minutes
  • Negative Rebuttal: 6 minutes
  • Final Thoughts and cross talk: up to 6 minutes
  • Teacher feedback and wrap up: 5 minutes

5. Set up discussion norms.  Depending on the topic, debates can get heated and personal.  In order to help maintain a calm and professional debate, set up and enforce ground rules like:

  • Speak so that everyone can hear you clearly
  • Listen closely to all participants.
  • Use visual cues to jump into the conversation when appropriate. Don’t raise your hands.
  • Base all opinions on the text and refer to it frequently.
  • Address all comments to the group. Don’t look only at the teacher and refrain from side conversations.
  • Be respectful to each other. Use conversation techniques like:
    • “I agree with what you said and I would like to add…”
    • “I understand your perspective, but on the other hand…”
    • “I think it is also important to note…”
  • Try not to interrupt each other. If two people start talking at the same time, make eye contact and one person defer to the other.
  • Monitor your own participation. Be sure to speak up, but also avoid monopolizing the conversation.
  • Be passionate in your own critical thinking, but don’t be afraid to change your mind if your peers present compelling arguments.
  • Ask for clarification if and when you need it.

 

Do your students debate?  What questions or tips do you have for our teacher community?

Teacher Resolutions 2015

ResolutionsHappy New Year!  I am sitting here on my last day of winter break submitting lesson plans, inspecting my new rosters, and looking ahead to another spring semester in the 11th grade.  In many ways, I have come to a happy place in my classroom career.  I have a pretty firm grasp on my curriculum, good relationships with my colleagues (after giving up drama for last year’s resolution) and I genuinely enjoy many of my students, which is good since we are really packing them in these days!  That being said, we all know that both classrooms and teaching careers are dynamic animals and so I still have many resolutions I’d like to make this year.  Below are a few of my teacher new year’s resolutions.  I’d love to hear your goals in the comment section below!

In 2015, I resolve to:

1. Focus more on individuals. I’ve noticed over the last two years that I don’t know my students as individuals as well as I used to.  I think this is in part due to the fact that I have been concentrating so heavily on honing my curriculum and in part due to the fact that I have had a couple of major life stressors recently. Whatever the reason, I would like to concentrate this semester on being more attentive to individual situations, personalities, passions, and patterns.  Knowing students on an individual level goes so far toward assessing academic and behavioral needs.

2. Clean out my cabinets.  I’ll admit it.  I am a classroom hoarder.  I have spent a decade keeping every scrap of construction paper, bottle of old glue, stack of ancient magazines, and everything else that I MAY use one day.  While many of these things are useful, it is time to take inventory and begin to use up, give away, or throw away my stores.

3. Remember to say please and thank you. In teaching my 3 year old to say please and thank you, he has often pointed out my deficiency in using these magic words myself.  As at home, I find myself in the classroom asking a student to turn out the lights, close the door, pass back papers, a do other jobs without always remembering my pleases and my thank yous. It is time to be a better model of politeness.

4. Embrace complexity at all levels. I preach to my advanced classes about pushing past the rote and the formulaic responses in their discussions and writing prompts, but I often allow other classes to cling to the scaffold for far too long.  Rhetoric, writing, and American lit are complicated beasts, it is time to make sure that I give all students more opportunity to wrestle with the complexity.

What about you?  Do you have any resolutions for this year?  We’d love to hear them!

The Teacher-Life Balancing Act

The first semester of this year has been particularly challenging for me in terms of balancing school and home responsibilities.  Shortly after a tragic family situation that threw my August into utter chaos, I received the wonderful (yet very surprising) news that I am expecting baby number 2 this summer.  For me, this news means that I’ve spent the majority of the first semester exhausted and trying not to lose my lunch in front of my students.  Don’t get me wrong, these particular circumstances have been absolutely insane, but one thing I’ve realized recently is that the teacher-life balance is always hard for myself and almost every teacher I know.

I know teachers who are struggling with finding time for new relationships, wedding planning, children, caring for aging parents, second jobs, church obligations, fitness goals, and a million other situations.  Regardless of personal circumstances or gender, it is hard to pour your heart in teaching and find the time and emotional energy to also live the non-teacher parts of your life.  Since we are all teachers here, I don’t think I need to preach to the choir about the sheer number of hours we spend at school or working on school related tasks deep into the night, but there is also a drain on our emotional and social capital that comes with such an intense career choice.  So what is a teacher supposed to do?  Today I want to start the discussion about how to manage the teacher-life balance, but I would love to hear more from you in the comment section as I am in dire need of support in this area too!

1. Set boundaries. almost every year this is my new year’s resolution.  I say that I am not going to do school work after 10pm or on Sundays.  I almost never make it a full month (and sometimes not even a week) without breaking my boundaries, but I still think it is good to have goals.  Boundaries also let me off the hook when I think about working for just a few more paper stacks….

2. Look into flexible work options. So many amazing teachers leave the classroom in part due to the demanding number of hours required.  It is not a financial possibility for many teachers, but for some there are opportunities for more flexible hours doing job share, part time, or alternative/virtual teaching.  I love classroom teaching, but I was wearing down, so this year I teach part time (periods 1-3) and then do a little blogging and teaching online courses to supplement.  It has made a world of difference to me, especially since I am able to be in school similar hours to my preschooler.

3. Maintain a routine. The only way I can get myself to the gym on top of school and family obligations is to make it a habit and set the alarm while I still have will power.  This year I would love to add social things to my routine like a set monthly mom’s night out or something.

4. Seek support.  A few years ago I moved into a classroom next to a woman who has become a close friend. She has helped me to dial back my teacher crazy with kind reminders to, “do something fun this weekend” or “leave the papers at school”. Supportive teacher friends are the best because they understand the paper piles and the love of students, but they also see that we all need a break sometimes.

5. Don’t beat yourself up.  It is easy to be hard on yourself for not getting your school tasks done or not spending enough quality time with your outside of school life, but in the end we all just have to do the best we can and try not to beat ourselves up.  We are teachers.  Hear us roar.

Happy New Year! I would love to hear your strategies or struggles below!

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