You know the groan well. It starts at the pit of the stomach, reverberates throughout the classroom and rattles your brain. “Today we’re starting our argument writing essay unit!” you chirp in your most stage-worthy voice. Or maybe it’s an informative essay based on research? A literary analysis essay perhaps? Regardless of the type, the essay brings a familiar groan to our ears. And the groan is duo-fold because it actually starts in the pits of our own stomachs. How the hell am I going to get through this boredom?! How am I going to teach this standard? My kids are going to hate this! They cannot, for the life of them, structure an essay!
I hear your groans, and I match you with my own from just two years ago, when I taught essay writing before discovering the magic of debates from Teachers College at Columbia University. If you just read the word “debates” and wondered if it is my goal to make you nauseated, don’t worry, it’s not. And again, you’re not alone. I’ve shared in the debate-stricken nausea as well because my initial feeling was that it added another level of complexity to an already complex assignment. The reality is that debates follow a manageable protocol that may add a few extra days to the front end of a first unit, though once taught, integrates seamlessly into the repertoire of procedures that you can use for the rest of the school year.
I’d like to take you on a journey to a land in which kids get the structure of an essay and, dare I say, they are excited to write one. In this land, structured debates are neither headache inducing nor tangential to your curriculum; they are the vehicle that allows students to rehearse their essays out loud, that drops them off in front of their paper, and that drives away waving to the vigorous scrawling of essays, heads down, pencils scratching, ideas flowing. No groans. Sigh.
So how on earth do debates enter the essay-writing curriculum? Enjoy this numbered list:
1. Kids (try to) debate all the time
Takis versus hot Cheetos, Nikes or Jordans, who won that argument; whatever it is, kids are running their mouths about which is better, whether or not something is relevant, and what he really meant when he said he’d call her later. Investment is the basis of all argument, and kids are invested. They have the life experience and the feelings to back up their ideas. But, they don’t know yet a) how to put those feelings into words, and b) how to give those words a structure that can turn themselves into that guy who won the argument that everyone is talking about.
Exhibit A: the kinds of debates that kids normally engage in:
Student X: Kanye’s new album’s the best, mo!
Student Y: What? Nah. It’s just a bunch of experiments!
Student X: No way. It’s the best!
Student Y: Oh, okay. Why’s that?
Student X: Cuz it is, mo! It’s got gospel and stuff. It’s big.
As you can see, Exhibit A leaves much to be desired in the way of substance and structure. Yes, he has a claim (Kanye’s new album is the best), but his best (known) line of defense against the counter argument (It’s not the best) is to repeat the claim again…and again (It’s the best! Cuz it is, mo!). By the end he at least reaches for some semblance of a reason (it’s big), as vague as it may be. But he may have mixed his reason and evidence together (The evidence for it being “big” is that it’s got gospel and stuff).
This argument clearly needs some help, which is the perfect place to start, with arguments that kids are already having. Debating is something kids do all the time because they like to do it. Adolescence is a long string of mini-competitions about things that seem menial to us but life-altering to them. Why not meet them where they are—engaged—and teach them how to win at it?
2. All writing is argumentative
Non-narrative writing that is. And even narrative writing argues some kind of claim. But for the purposes of me trying to convince you that debates lend themselves well to writing, let’s stick with the academic kind: literary analysis, persuasive, personal essay, informative, op-ed. They all start with a claim—something that must be taught to the reader—and they set out to prove that claim through reasons and evidence. Here are some examples of argumentative claims across different genres of writing, all of which necessitate reasons, evidence and a solid structure to back them up:
Literary analysis: The tree from The Giving Tree is weak.
Persuasive/op-ed: Cheerleading shouldn’t be considered a real sport.
Informative: Overfishing is causing a decline in biodiversity.
Personal Essay: My dad seems tough, but he is really a softy.
3. Debates engage kids in structured rehearsal
As mentioned previously, the argument from Exhibit A needs some help, which is exactly what kids get during a debate protocol: lots of opportunities to make a claim, identify reasons for their claim, and select the evidence that best supports their reasons and proves their claim. Through the process of finding and selecting evidence, discussing evidence in a caucus, outlining their arguments, rehearsing their arguments in a caucus, and finally debating, kids actually walk through their arguments five separate times. When they finally reach the face-off, they’re mostly putting on a show, and what a show it is. Imagine what Exhibit A might look like after a bit of structure and rehearsal
Exhibit B: The “same” debate, after some sharpening:
Student X: Kanye’s new album is a work of art, mo!
Student Y: What? Nah. It’s just experimental garbage!
Student X: No disrespect, mo, but I disagree. It’s art because it’s his most experimental album to date! I mean, one example of how he experiments: the gospel throughout the album. He makes a statement about race by bringing it to church! Musically, it’s sparse, but it’s got a heavy message! He’s never played with music like this before. That’s art!
After learning the structure through multiple rehearsals, Student X really honed his argument! The claim is more specific (Kanye’s album is a work of art), his reason is aligned (because it’s experimental), his evidence supports the reason (this is the first time he has juxtaposed “sparse” music with a deep message), and he ties it all together with a warrant, or an explanation (playing—or experimenting—with music like this is what art is).
Musically speaking, my ears would be singing if my students produced that argument in a casual hallway conversation. And okay, okay, the reality of the situation is that it may not sound that beautiful, at least not at first. But once kids get to practicing…and practicing and practicing, you’ll start to hear it in everyday back-and-forth, and they’ll start to hold each other accountable to the parts of an argument (Where’s your evidence, man?). Here’s an example of a argument one of my students just gave as part of a debate in class, and while not perfect, it’s a decent example of the kind of product you can expect after your second or third round of debates:
Debates have a valuable place in the literacy classroom for both students and teachers alike. Kids want to debate because it mimics their social lives, and they want to be winners. As for teachers, debates intertwine skills that are fundamental to literacy learning: reading for evidence, listening closely, speaking purposefully, and writing solid arguments. In the next article, I’ll break down the debate protocol for you with a tangible example that you can take directly into your classroom to try debates out for yourself.
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!