The Great Debate

Balanced debate by Articulate Matter
Balanced debate, a photo by Articulate Matter on Flickr.

Once again I have been amazed by the abilities of my students. So many times I worry about the things they CAN’T do and how I am going to find a way to improve them, that I forget about all the great things they CAN do.

The most recent example of this for me was this past week in my Knowledge and Employability grade 9 Social Studies class. I have 14 students with varying degrees of learning, behavioural and health issues. This is the first time I have taught them an academic subject and I would say that we have ALL struggled at one point or another with the material so far. They have some pretty large limitations with reading and writing and I am not sure I have always found effective ways to bridge this gap when directing their learning.

When sharing some of these problems with Brad Arndt (@barndt_77), a colleague who taught the class to last year’s grade 9s, he told me that he had had a lot of success with staging class debates. Ok…to be honest, I wasn’t too optimistic, but I was willing to give it a shot.

We took two full classes to discuss what a debate looked like and they watched some video of actual middle school debate teams competing. Then we tried to come up with ideas on what makes a good argument – this was not easy and I got some push back from the class. Then I brought up easy topics and we quickly wrote up arguments for both sides. The first topic was Cats vs Dogs, then 11:00pm curfews for teens under 16, and lastly lowering the voter age to 16. With every topic, they got stronger and stronger at formulating effective arguments and rebutting the arguments of the opposition.

During our last debate on lowering the voting age, I was astounded at some of the points made and at how articulately these “special needs” students were. At one point, a student who was speaking FOR lowering the voter age stated (I am paraphrasing here) “its like going down the road and choosing which path to take…we want to have a say in the path of our country”

Good point.

In rebuttal another student said “It is like choosing which path to take, but 16 year olds are too inexperienced to choose a good path. They will choose a bumpy path instead of a smooth one…if we drove our car down a bumpy path, it would get ruined, so why would we take our country down one?”

Whoa…remember if I asked these students to write down these arguments, they would need assistance to even get started. If I asked them to turn their argument into a simile or a metaphor I would get mostly blank stares. Yet here they were eloquently and confidently arguing their points. Amazing.

The the first student responded by saying “It may be a bumpier path, but if each of those bumps is an idea then that is the path we should take.”

There were more contributions than just these two students and I definitely felt rejuvenated by their enthusiasm and receptiveness for the debate. Mostly I was reminded not to dwell so much on the things they struggle with.