Minor Variations on Debate & Discussion

Here are some brief notes on insights about variations on debate & discussion in my high school English courses that I’ve worked on during our year with COVID conditions.

Each year I hear positive reflections from students about debate and discussion experiences in my classroom. In pre-COVID times, I would work students through 1:1 debate camps with a modified (shortened) Lincoln-Douglass format, ranging somewhere between Education World’s “Stage a Debate: A Primer for Teachers” and Whitman College’s “Lincoln-Douglas Format and Sample Resolutions.”

Over the years, I found that I needed to include some basic scoring cues for students to use in self-assessment, including penalties for menacing or using second-person pronouns. So, students would be reflecting on the content of their debates as well as their process and conduct. I have found that many students enjoyed the competitive nature of debate and they often enjoyed the ensuing debate about the scoring. To help students deescalate, I would often have them offer sincere analytical compliments to their peers, or I would shift students to a follow-up Socratic or Rogerian cooperative discussion.

Of course, COVID conditions changed much of this. I still managed to have students do break-out room debates and discussions with some success while online through part of the fall semester, but I could not simultaneously monitor all discussions as I could with the in-person classroom sessions.

In helping keep class sizes and contact patterns down this year, our school has gone to a straight quarter block. So, we do a semester in a quarter, twice each semester. the 100 minute classes were conducive to debates and discussions, but in the fall, we needed to limit the close proximity time within the classroom, so that limited the scale of debates.

I’ve found it helpful to modify my approach to 6 1/2 minute debates. In this format, I have students present as follows: 1 minute for the affirmative claims; 1 minute for cross-exam questioning; 1 minute for negative claims; 1 minute for cross-exam questioning; 1 minute for affirmative rebuttal; 1 minute for negative rebuttal; and 30 seconds for an extra affirmative rebuttal since the affirmative side went first, giving the negative side more preparatory thinking time. That’s basically a condensed version of Lincoln-Douglass format, and I find that students are less likely to run out of things to say with this pattern. (In “normal” school years, I often use this as a formative task in which students can self-assess their improvement of drawing on more content and using more time.)

I also found that the short debate structure works well for taking outside breaks with students now that the weather has become nice enough to do so. It’s been helpful to blend a change of setting with a brief but engaging learning activity.

In terms of modifying my modification of debate, I found my fourth quarter seniors off-put with the debate task. They didn’t seem to engage in it with any sort of passion or interest. Perhaps, it was partly the personality of the class, but I also suspect that they are a bit worn out by the unpleasant, polarized political and cultural discourse of the past few years. With these thoughts in mind, I modified the debate approach, allowing them to treat the interactions as more of a debate or more of a Socratic or Rogerian discussion. Their performance and enjoyment greatly improved as they frequently chose the more cooperative approach.

Lastly, I modified the rebuttal segment so each pairing would switch sides. I told them they were welcome to use the rebuttal as more of a summation or they could extend the ideas. The modification worked well with students and they seemed to further enjoy the experience.

In classes where we had an odd number of students, I would pair up with a student, and my partner would also pick the discussion mode and would have me take the affirmative side so that I would have to go first. Since we would switch for the rebuttals, I could easily help the student have ample things to say since I was suggesting ideas during the (softened) cross-exam segment just before the student would share.

In terms of debate topics, I found the 6 or 6 1/2 minute time perfect for practicing with argument topics found from years of AP English Language exams: Cf. AP English Language &Composition Exam Prompts (1981 to 2017). Additionally, I could adapt a topic for some text we were reading or about to read (E.g., “Do the benefits of aging outweigh the detriments?” in conjunction with Eudora Welty’s “A Worn Path.”)

Other teachers may find these modified debate approaches as useful for different subject areas as well. I’m looking forward to more normalcy but the abnormalities of the year have definitely helped me think through essentials and adaptations.


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