Getting the Literary Debate up and Running
Debate Protocol

Getting the Literary Debate up and Running

May 20, 2016 0

The debate protocol that I have adapted from Teachers College Reading and Writing Project has three parts main parts: 1) Gather, 2) Caucus, and 3) Debate. All of the parts can be stretched or shortened with more or fewer steps in between, depending on how much your students can handle at once, and how much time you have. A general breakdown of the parts looks like this:


  1. Gather

During this phase of the protocol, students read a text that proposes two sides of an issue, gather reasons and evidence to support both sides, and choose which side they agree with more.


Present a text with a topic that can be argued

Today we are going to read a famous story by a very well-known author: “Thank You Ma’am” by Langston Hughes, about a boy who tries to steal a purse from a woman named Mrs. Luella Bates Washington Jones, but he doesn’t know what he’s really getting himself into. Some people say that Mrs. Jones, is mean, but others say she is kind. While we read the story today, your task is to keep that argument in mind and to decide which side you agree with more and WHY you agree with it.


Read the text aloud, stopping at predetermined points for students to jot reasons and evidence onto a graphic organizer. Consider stopping at…


“…kicked him right square in his blue jeaned sitter.”

I can see why someone would say that she was being mean because she just kicked the boy, just a child. What grown person kicks a child? I’d jot that down as evidence for the claim that says Mrs. Jones is mean. BUT, on the other hand, he was trying to steal her purse, and this was really just her way of protecting herself. I don’t think that supports the argument that she’s nice, but I do think that counters the argument that she’s mean, so I’d jot that down on the other side of my notes, under the “Mrs. Jones is nice” claim.


“…dragging the frightened boy behind her.”

Pause. What do you think about Mrs. Jones so far? Does she seem mean or kind here? What evidence do you have that supports your thinking? If you have found reasons and evidence that support both arguments, take a moment and jot them down under both sides of your notes.


“‘Let the water run until it gets warm,’ she said. ‘Here’s a clean towel.’”

Let’s take another moment to think through the arguments. Is Mrs. Jones acting kind or mean here? Jot your reasons and evidence to support either side, maybe even both, on your notes.


“And he did not want to be mistrusted now.”

Look back over the section of the text that we just read and think about which evidence shows that Mrs. Jones is kind and which shows her as mean. Jot your thoughts down in your notes. How has Mrs. Jones treated Roger? How has he responded to her? How does Roger feel in her presence? Consider Roger’s feelings and actions as evidence of Mrs. Jones’ personality.

Mayra taking notes      IMG_20160520_103448449


When students have finished reading the text and taking notes on the reasons and evidence that support each side, instruct them to look over their notes and choose the side that they agree with most.

Take a few minutes and look over your notes. Which side do you agree with more? Which side do you have more reasons and evidence to support? Raise your hand if you agree with the argument that Mrs. Jones is mean. Those of you who have your hands up will move to the left side of the room. The rest of you agree with the argument that Mrs. Jones is kind, so please move to the right side of the room.


Additional Notes: You’ll want to make sure that the two separate sides have an equal number of students so that everyone has someone to face off with during the debate: Looking at both sides of the room, it seems that the sides are slightly uneven. Can I have a few brave volunteers move to the other side of the room and argue the opposite claim?


  1. Caucus

During this phase of the protocol, students share notes with others who support their claim, choose the best reasons and evidence that they have to outline their argument, and practice giving their argument.


Have each side of the room circle up and discuss the best reasons and evidence they have found to support their side. By the end of the caucus, they should have an outline of their claim and the reasons and evidence that best support it.

Now that you are in a group with people who agree with your same claim, it’s time to help each other put together the best argument possible for when you face off against the other side. This means that you have to select the best reasons that support your argument and the best pieces of evidence from the text that prove your reasons. Huddle up with your side and consider the reasons and evidence that you found. When you have agreed on the strongest reasons and evidence that support your side, jot them down on your argument outline graphic organizer.


Additional Notes: You may have to teach students how reasons differ from evidence: Reasons tell how you know your claim is true. Evidence tells how you know your reason is true. A good way to remember this is “I think claim because reason, and I know the reason is true because evidence, evidence, and evidence.” For example, I know Mrs. Jones is mean because she hurts Roger physically, and I know she hurts Roger because she kicks him in his bottom, and she puts him in a headlock and drags him to her house.



Students outline their argument to support the claim Ms. Jones is kind during their caucus.



Allow students time to rehearse their argument before the face-off.

Now that you’ve outlined what you’re going to say in your argument to win your debate, it’s time to practice saying it before you face off in the actual debate! Quickly get into pairs and decide which of you will rehearse your debate first; you will be Partner A. You will only have one minute to make a solid argument, so make sure that you practice a few times so that you can fit all of your reasons and evidence in along with some solid explanations. Remember that there is a predictable way to structure your argument as you speak:

  • I think that claim
  • I think this because reason
  • I know this is true because evidence

Partner A, get your notes in front of you and ready to glance at to guide your argument. Your one-minute rehearsal starts… NOW!


Additional Notes: Consider coaching into rehearsals with debate language for transitions: I can prove that because… This evidence illustrates that she is mean/kind because…


  1. Debate

During this phase of the protocol, students present their argument to an opponent and listen to their opponent’s argument. Then they write their entire argument down in a “flash draft” essay.


Have the two opposing groups stand in lines that face each other so that each person from one side is facing an opponent from the other side. This will be the classmate they face off against.

Debaters, you’ve read the text closely, you’ve decided which side you’re on, you’ve gathered reasons and evidence to support your side, and you’ve rehearsed your debate. Now it’s time for the actual showdown! The person standing across from you is your opponent. Please shake hands with your opponent. Remember that each side will have exactly one whole minute to present their argument. This minute belongs entirely to the debater who is giving her argument, and no interruptions will be tolerated. Even if it seems as though your opponent may have finished giving her argument, allow him to think silently until the minute is up because who knows? He may remember an important reason or piece of evidence that he left out. If it is your turn to listen to your partner’s argument, listen actively by giving her respectful eye contact without distracting movements. If you are the debater, obey the timer. Even if you are not finished giving your argument, when the timer sounds, your time to debate has ended. The side that will present their arguments first is the side that thinks that Mrs. Jones is mean. You will have exactly one minute. On your marks, get set, debate!



Instruct students to quickly take their seats and draft out their argument in essay format as quickly as they can.

Debaters, you have presented your claim, reasons and evidence and listened to the counterclaim with reasons and evidence. Now is your opportunity to write your argument down in a “flash draft,” which means a first draft of an essay that you write as quickly as you can so that you don’t forget anything. Don’t worry about spelling, don’t worry about grammar and punctuation right now, just write, Write, WRITE. Remember to use all you know about writing a strong essay, and use your outline to help you remember. Pencils to paper, go Go GO!


IMG_20160511_154035217         IMG_20160520_104125932
Congratulations! You have just taken your students through their first debate protocol to serve the writing process! Now that students know the protocol, it is something that they’ll remember easily, and you can build onto the protocol from here on out (note-taking during your opponent’s argument; re-caucusing and rebuttal, stretching out arguments with more evidence and more time). You’ve hopefully seen how quickly the debate protocol can ramp up kids’ engagement in the writing process, and therefore, their ability to perform well when writing. They’ve practiced the structure of argument writing; now all you need to do is build on top of it. Goodbye to groans. Cheers abound.


Check out upcoming articles to learn more about running debates in your classroom. Please reach out to me at anna@GrowingReadersDC.com for support in getting debates up and running. Happy debating!

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