The Third Grade and Fifth Grade both held debates last school year. The third graders debated the pros and cons of uniforms, a topic of discussion that surfaces amongst groups of boys over lunch and during snack from time-to-time. The fifth graders debated current events that they selected with the guidance of teachers through research and collaboration.
Why debates? In the Third Grade, it was decided a number of years ago to do the debate project as a prelude to persuasive writing. This gave the boys an ACTIVE experience of arguing a point before they are asked to put pen to paper and write about it. It is their first exposure to debate at Allen-Stevenson.
To begin, the third graders are shown a video before reading an article for research. They highlight the opinions laid out in the article to see some of the pros and cons, which are then discussed in class. They are also shown a debate on another topic, so they can see the parts of debate in action before they know their own roles. The boys are then all asked to explore both the pros and cons of school uniforms before they are assigned their position. The biggest emphasis is that opinions need to be supported, not just proclaimed. They take this to heart. Partners are given a lot of time to prepare and edit each other and many choose to type up their argument (though that is not required).
In the Fifth Grade, debates incorporate elements of expository writing. The boys begin their preparation with a few sessions discussing what is trending topic-wise with Director of the Library Tech Commons, Sarah Kresberg. She shows the boys slides with different types of questions and then works with them to find out what they think are the most interesting, narrowing the list down to 12 topics. The boys are then grouped and two boys from each class are assigned to each topic. The boys are required to research both sides of the issue using NoodleTools and find facts to support their evidence. Then they develop a thesis statement before writing their piece, which is edited with the help of their teachers and peers. By researching both sides, they are better prepared for what their opponents might bring up during the debate. Public speaking lessons and mock debates are some of the skills that the teachers work with them on in preparation for the actual debate. They learn the terminology used in a debate, such as what is a proposition and opposition team and the difference between constructive and rebuttal speeches, as well as how a point of information (P.O.I.) is requested and accepted or rejected. Watching videos from other schools to see how a debate works gives them another perspective.
With both the third and fifth graders, it is impressive to watch them stand up in front of their peers and teachers, speaking loudly and clearly as they take risks in arguing their position and challenging others on theirs. They gain a solid understanding of good sportsmanship and citizenship -- valuing the importance of others’ opinions and learning to argue for something they don’t necessarily support. As Third Grade Teacher Ms. Campo reminded the boys during the third grade debates, “The best debaters and lawyers have to argue what they don’t believe sometimes.”