Get Your Air Horn Ready: Debate Is Now in Session

Teaching (2)

by Dr. Kim Foster

“It. Was. Awesome.”

Let me paint a picture for you. It’s April. There are three weeks of school left for my senior students. To use one student’s exact words, he is beyond ready to “low-key get on up out of this building.” And I understand. I was a senior in high school once. I was a senior in college once. And I was 8 months pregnant defending my dissertation once. I get it. They want to be done, and I want that for them. They have earned it! However, we have three weeks left together, and I want these weeks to be meaningful. So, as I have for the past three years with seniors, we do a debate unit at the end of the year. “Arguing” with one another keeps them highly engaged. They want to win. They want to be right.

“Dr. Foster, when are we actually going to get to argue with each other? I was ready the first day we decided our topic!”

“Miguel, we are going to have our debate next Friday after both teams have had ample time to conduct academic research.”

“But we don’t need to do that! We are ready right now!”

“We watched these 10-15 minute discussions, and then we analyzed through the lens of the rhetorical triangle. These analyses and academic conversations were so, so powerful.”

When we return from spring break, we spend 8-10 days analyzing, discussing, and applying the rhetorical triangle. We look at articles, speeches, etc. Additionally this year, we added the viewing of Middle Ground videos from a YouTube channel. This series was suggested to me by the student referenced previously, Miguel. The two days we spent watching and discussing was amazing. This particular series brings people together who have very differing views, and throughout the discussions, the participants seek to find “middle ground” on the issue. I let the students decide which videos we watched; some of them were: Cops vs. Ex-Felons; Pro-Life vs. Pro-Choice; Liberal vs. Conservation; Anti-Gun vs. Pro-Gun; Veterans vs. Peace Activists.

We watched these 10-15 minute discussions, and then we analyzed through the lens of the rhetorical triangle. These analyses and academic conversations were so, so powerful. The students were able to listen, to analyze, and to apply the rhetorical stratgies. The students were able to evaluate which appeal was effective; they considered the organization of thoughts and rebuttals. It. Was. Awesome.

After the 8-10 days of instruction, each of my 5 classes chose a debate topic. These are the topics they chose:

Homosexuality: Innate or a choice?

Should prostitution be legal?

Should a college education be free?

Should students be required to stand for the pledge?

Does police brutality differ based on race?

“I had my reservations, as does any classroom teacher when students bring up potentially controversial issues. However, the students were very invested in these topics which means the majority of them were very invested in the research.”

You are probably thinking, “How in the world did the students generate these topics?” (Because they did). You are probably also thinking, “How in the world did she allow these topics to be topics?” (Because I did). I had my reservations, as does any classroom teacher when students bring up potentially controversial issues. However, the students were very invested in these topics which means the majority of them were very invested in the research. During the several days of research, I instructed them to develop their arguments with sound research. I also highly encouraged to seek to understand both sides.

When it came to that long-awaited Friday, the debates were held in the media center, and I had teacher volunteers as judges. I was the facilitator. As the day went on, I assume that word spread about the debates, so students from other classes and all ages wanted to come in and just listen to the debates. Let me reiterate that- students wanted to listen to academic conversations. Wow. Wow. Wow.  Words can not even begin to express the pride that swelled in my heart when all of my classes participated in their debates. The students performed way above and beyond any expectation that I had for them. They were mature, respectful, informed, and well-mannered. It. Was. Awesome.

“At the end of the debates, without any suggestion from me, the students affirmed each other in doing a great job. They shook hands.”

There was a declared “winner” for each debate; however, there was something very different about this year’s debates. At the end of the debates, without any suggestion from me, the students affirmed each other in doing a great job. They shook hands. They commented on particular pieces of evidence that were stated or on the delivery of a rebuttal. I was in awe of my students’ abilities. Truly, I was.

I had a student, who has somewhat of a combative nature, come talk to me at the end of that Friday.

“Dr. Foster, I can not believe we handled our topic so maturely. I for sure thought that you-know-who was going to just go off! But you know what? He didn’t. He actually did really well.”

“Yes he did. Why did you think it went so well today?”

“You know what? (Pause…) I think it’s because we listened to each other instead of just arguing with each other.”

These students wanted to win and wanted to be right, but more importantly, they wanted to listen to and better understand the opposing side. It. Was. Awesome.

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