Last semester, I created a government unit plan on issues related to federalism that culminated in the students participating in formal debates. It did not go as well as I’d hoped, which is a slight understatement. See my previous post for the full story. Yet I didn’t want to give up on the debate idea because I think debates touch on so many skills from doing research and critical thinking to speaking articulately and listening well. So I tried to figure out what some of the specific problems were on the first go around and how I could tweak the lesson in response.
Here’s what I determined were some of the key problems:
1. At around 20 minutes, the debates were too long for students who may never have debated before in previous classes.
2. I failed to provide enough scaffolding when it came to finding quality resources and helping students lay out their arguments, pro and con.
3. Debating in class in front of everyone put too much pressure on students who may never have debated before this.
So what to do?
First, I truncated the length of the debate. I now have the students doing an 8-minute debate.* Since I shortened the debate, I have the students working in groups of 2 rather than 4 or 5. This also makes it easier to determine if everyone is pulling his or her own weight.
Second, I provided more specific resources (particularly the database Issues and Controversies) that help the students define the issue and think of possible arguments for and against their issue. To be sure, I listed this as a possible resource the last time, but this time, I am requiring them start their research there.
Third, instead of doing the debates in class. I am having the students film their debates using iMovie. Now, I do not want highly edited debates, so the rule is that they can practice and re-film their debate in entirety as many times as they want, but they can’t stop and start and edit out whole portions of the debate. It needs to be one complete 8-minute debate with stutters, mistakes, warts and all.
I am hoping that this improves this lesson, at least for the vast majority of my students. And if it does, I am hoping that I can then do a “live” debate later in the semester.
*2 minutes pro, 2 minutes con, 1 minute pro, 2 minutes con, 1 minute pro