For the overarching concept for this unit, I am focusing on “Learning a Key Strategy:” the strategy of argumentation through debate. As sophomores in high school, my students are approaching adulthood and are crafting their own unique identities and perspectives. Many have very strong feelings and opinions about different topics, and love to engage in discussion. The goal for this unit is to teach students the art and craft of argumentation—how to present their ideas in a well-informed, logical, respectful way. This unit is important because each student needs to understand how to, differentiate between credible and unsupported information, and understand the logic and structure behind persuasive/ argumentative writing and speaking. Regardless of where life takes them, these students will be interact with people and information all their lives, information that will contradict their own perspectives and people that will try to manipulate, persuade, or argue for and against the thoughts and feelings of these students. They need to be able to identify when this is happening, so as to be sure to respond to explicit and implicit messages in a way that is consistent with what they truly believe or intend. The goals for this unit are 1. to consider different perspectives/points of view and 2. to develop a well-reasoned and supported argument.
The justification for these goals and for teaching debate as a key strategy fosters higher-level thinking skills and is justified by a focus on “Civic Awareness.” Debate emphasizes important real-world skills such as critical thinking, effective communication, independent research and teamwork. Additionally, debate requires the development and practice of higher level thinking according to Bloom’s taxonomy as described in Effective Teaching Methods: analysis (requiring students to differentiate between credible sources, compare and contrast, recognize and support relationships between ideas and outline arguments), synthesis (requiring students to compile information from a variety of sources to form a unique solution to a problem or question, to formulate a logical and well-supported argument, and to predict and compose counterarguments) and evaluation (requiring students to assess the credibility of source material, judge the credibility of an argument based on specific criteria, defend and support their position on a topic or issue) (Borich, 2007, pp. 92-96). These skills not only contribute to the success of students within the classroom, but also in their future workplaces, in their social and political lives and in their responsibilities as citizens of democratic societies.
The development of these individual skills impacts the larger society by allowing individuals the opportunity to actively engage in a “more equitable, democratic, and dynamic society”—key justifications of a unit centered on developing civic awareness and navigating difficult social issues according to Smagorinsky, author of Teaching English by Design (Smagorinsky, 2008, p. 143). A debater must consider and study both sides of an argument of question. IDEA suggests that in this way, debate inherently “teaches the principles of tolerance, nonviolence and respect for different points of view.” Training in open-mindedness and the patient and purposeful consideration of varying perspectives is essential to developing well-informed opinions and views. In Carroll Lahman’s Debate Coaching, a Handbook for Teachers and Coaches, she quotes John Stuart Mill commenting on the process of developing informed judgments about crucial issues: “No man [or woman] understands his [or her] own side until he [or she] understands the other side” (1930, pg. 13). Debating fosters an energetic exchange of ideas and has the power to “break down national, economic, cultural and ethnic boundaries, showing that opposing views can be explored in a way that connects rather than divides people” (IDEA). Teaching debate is a worthwhile focus for a conceptual unit because the framework and skills developed extend far beyond the classroom experience, contributing to the development of responsible, respectful and reasoned individuals.
Unit Goal Assessments:
• Pro/Con Packet and Cornell Notes : Students are required to gather at least 10 articles as research for their debate. For the first four articles (2 pro and 2 con), students must complete a series of questions evaluating the credibility of each source. This in-process activity is meant to train students to critically evaluate sources before they do the majority of their research. For the remaining 6+ articles that students gather, they will incorporate their learning about the credibility of sources and build on that knowledge by practicing Cornell style note taking in preparation to synthesize these sources to produce the outline for their debate.
* I will read through the pro/con packets and respond to students regarding areas of strength and weakness. Packets are graded according to a check plus, check, check minus, check minus minus scale. I will also grade the Cornell Notes according to this scale and provide students with feedback.
• -Speech Outline: Students will draft an outline of their speech. This activity is used to scaffold the rough draft of the debate. The goal is to ensure that all students include the necessary elements of argumentation and debate.
*Students will work in groups of two and peer-edit another classmate’s outline according to handout with questions on one side and a rubric aligned with Common Core.
Culminating Texts and Activities:
• Rough draft of debate: Students will complete a rough draft of their debate speech including all the necessary elements and based on the outlines they have already completed. This will be a fleshed out version and the last opportunity for feedback before the final culminating activity.
* I will review the rough drafts and respond with comments so as to continue to support and aid students in refining their debates before the deliver their speeches in front of the class. I will provide feedback based on the Debate Rubric/Score Sheet that will be used to assess the culminating activity—the performance of the debate.
• Debate: Students will complete a final draft and participate in a debate—two teams of two arguing opposite sides of a controversial issue/topic.
*I will evaluate the debates as they are performed in accordance with the Debate Rubric/Score Sheet also used to assess the debate drafts.
This learning we will be facilitated and guided by three Common Core State Standards regarding research and evidence for supporting claims (pro/con packets & Cornell Notes), synthesizing multiple sources to formulate a stance or opinion on a topic or question (outline/rough draft), and finally, presenting that information, supported by evidence in a logical format suitable for a particular audience and purpose (debate): CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RI.9-10.8, CCSS.ELA-Literacy.W.9-10.7 and CCSS.ELA-Literacy.SL.9-10.4 (National Governors Association Center for Best Practices, Council of Chief State School Officers, 2010).
While the process of researching and developing a well-informed opinion on any topic is clearly valuable, some worry that debate teaches students to be argumentative or combative when they disagree with one another. While this is a legitimate concern, the purpose of debate is to teach students how to think (rather than argue), how to analyze information and logically process and articulately present that information. While students will defend different positions on a topic, in order to defend their position, they must first consider and have researched the opposing view. This process shows students the ineffectiveness of blind argumentation and teaches students that in order to formulate a reasoned understanding or opinion requires considering and analyzing different perspectives. It is inevitable that students will interact with people who think, act and feel differently than they do and in preparation, it is vitally important that we equip students with a tools and skills so that they can interact in meaningful, respectful, well-reasoned, constructive exchanges. Without active engagement with whom we disagree, it is likely that elements of truth remain uncovered, as explained by Mahatma Ghandi: “honest disagreement is often a good sign of progress” (IDEA).
Borich, G. D. (2007). Effective teaching methods: research-based practice (6th ed.). Upper Saddle River, N.J.: Pearson Merrill/Prentice Hall.
IDEA. “WHY DEBATE?” International Debate Education Association. 2011. Web. Idebate.org
Lahman, Carroll Polock. “Chapter I WHY DEBATE?” Debate Coaching, a Handbook for Teachers and Coaches. Vol. I. New York: H.W. Wilson, 1930. 11-17. Print. IV.
National Governors Association Center for Best Practices, Council of Chief State School Officers. (2010). Common Core State Standards (English Language Arts). National Governors Association Center for Best Practices, Council of Chief State School Officers, Washington D.C. Web. http://www.corestandards.org/the-standards
Smagorinsky, P. (2008). Teaching English by design: how to create and carry out instructional units. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.