Teaching Argument Through Debate and Romeo & Juliet

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GCTE was a blast! I am always glad I attend and present. I particularly enjoyed presenting with my buddy, Taylor Cross at Decatur High School. I met some really great teachers from all over the state again, and got some great takeaways that I’ll share later. Today’s post is really about combining argument with difficult literature. I’ll preface that I teach on an 85 minutes block and that my students are considered honors/gifted. Still, I was really excited to see how my recent lesson evolved and was taken up by my students. I’ll share some ways I’ll tweak it for the future too.

Typically, I have taught argument in the sphere of non-fiction and as it’s own unit with the occasional sprinkling in other units. Being in the midst of teaching William Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet, also typically means I’m not really in argumentation mode. I found myself wanting to be more creative with how I workshop the play with my students, and I found myself particularly excited about the prospect of teaching elements of debate (to introduce argument) in conjunction with the many conflicts we see evolve in Shakespeare’s work. The inspiration hit while pondering how I wanted students to wrestle with the fallout of Act III, sc i of the play, which (spoiler alert) changes the focus of the play when both Mercutio and Tybalt are killed. In the following two scenes, Shakespeare invites us to witness how the two star-crossed lovers deal with the news of these tragic events and their consequences. For anyone unfamiliar, many would agree Juliet handles the news the best with some resolve and maturity, while Romeo–well–let’s just say dude totally foreshadows his own death.

For whatever reason, I saw these scenes as a perfect way to have students explore the complexity of these two characters while also introducing terminology and procedures for oral argument.

Here’s what I did:

I opened class with a short 15 minutes overview of the structure of an oral argument. Specifically, I introduced my kiddos to the ARE model (assertion, reasoning, and evidence) for an argument, while introducing them to “They say… But… Because… Therefore” model for a refutation. This also allowed me to start bringing in classic argumentative jargon like ethos, pathos, and logos. I was excited to introduce the concepts now as I will build upon them before the end of the year when we do our argumentative letters. I provided each table of students with a note taking flowchart they should use, which you can see here. I impressed upon them the importance of taking notes during a debate of any kind to prepare refutations and rebuttals.

As soon as we were done defining the models and discussing how to use them, I provided each table with a list of twelve or so pro/con arguments to practice their new found debate skills.  Some of the inquires included:

  • Should schools mandate students where uniforms?
  • Should marijuana be legalized for medical use?
  • Should the legal drinking age be lowered from 21 years old?

They then formed into groups of three. One student was to take the pro side, while the other the con. The third was to judge the debate. I made a point to my students before this that the burden of proving an argument always goes to the prosecution in the court of law, and the case is the same for the student choosing to take the pro side of an issue. While each contender spoke using the models we discussed for about a minute, the other debater and judge wrote notes using the flow chart. In all, we rotated three times so students could be in each position, choosing different arguments each time. They loved it. Some certianly stuck to the “rules” better than others, but they had a chance to really understand the construct of an argument in a way they hadn’t before. They got to see first hand through their own participation when an emotional appeal can trump a wonderfully articulate logical appeal.

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Now it was time pull Romeo & Juliet into the mix. I split the room into team Juliet and team Romeo with one simple purpose: argue for why your character handles the situation the best after the tragic events of Act III, sc. i.

Team Juliet read Act III, sc. ii, while Team Romeo read Act III, sc. iii. With enough time, I would have had them read one another’s scenes as well. Instead, I provided a brief synopsis of each scene after the teams had time to read. In groups of six, students had to craft their arguments using the ARE model. After about 10 minutes of developing a case for each character, the day ended with a three round debate where three students from each side had to argue for their character while refuting the other. Logic would dictate team Juliet had a big advantage over team Romeo. Team Romeo felt the pressure to and tried to argue with me they were at a disadvantage. I quickly pointed out there are positions that start out at a disadvantage all the time; it was their job to overcome that concern and make an appeal that would be stronger than the other team’s. After the three rounds of debate, which was quite fun I might add, me and two other students from both sides determined a winner. Believe it or not, team Romeo won. Both students judging with me agreed team Romeo had a strong emotional (pathos) appeal in the argument that superseded the logical evidence team Juliet provided. Given, this might because they are adolescents themselves and they see immediate appeal in emotional arguments, but whatever the case, I relished getting to debrief and point out the power of emotional rhetoric (Donald Trump anyone? Bueller?).

That took us all the way up to the bell. I’m not sure if anyone reading this will want to take similar approach in their own classroom, but I will say I really enjoyed the process and melding the world of argument and R&J together for the first time. Sure, I had students debate a point of view on the characters before, but never so formally and with argumentative jargon at the forefront. Students left with smiles on their faces and full of energy.

If I were to do it again, I would improve my flow sheet to be clearer to students and would model the note taking process. They struggled there the most. Most didn’t get the sense of urgency for taking the notes like I wanted them to, but my plan is to revisit this kind of debate again before the end of the play.

Cheers!

 

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