Ensights Magazine

MS presidential debates

Middle School Debates

Paul Downey '92, Assistant Director of Marketing & Communications
For the past six years, Latin teacher Trey House has incorporated lively debate projects into his sixth grade classes’ year of study in history, language, and rhetoric. “One lesson culminates with a debate about the legacy of Julius Caesar,” Mr. House explains. “Students choose whether they are for or against Caesar based on their own understanding of the history, then team up on their chosen side to craft their arguments.”
These “Republicans vs. Caesarean” debates, which employ painstaking research, creative costumes, striking visual aids, and impassioned speeches, are judged by faculty and staff from throughout the Red Gables Campus.
 
“Part of the debate preparation process for students is to put themselves in the mindset of the other team,” Trey describes. “‘What conclusions are my opponents making and how did they get there?’ When we arrive at the debate, there is an understanding that, while I may be quite passionate about my own ideas, my opponents are looking at the same information and taking a different perspective.”
 
Mr. House enjoys the interdisciplinary nature of the project, particularly at the Grade 6 level. “Debates and presentational projects are a consistent theme of this year,” he says. “I know the language my colleagues are using with students on their own projects and I incorporate that into my teaching. Each project across all disciplines is an opportunity for reflection and growth.”
 
History is another discipline where the Core Skills necessary for civil discourse are emphasized. Department chair, Ruby Cortner, has integrated debates into the curriculum across all three Middle School grades. In Grade 6, students compete in the Greatest Civilization debates in a single-elimination March Madness-style tournament. Cortner, like House, recognizes the value of researching the positions of your opponent. When a team in the Greatest Civilization debate loses to another, the losing team serves as advisors to the victor since they already know the victorious team’s civilization’s strengths and weaknesses. 
 
Mrs. Cortner’s Grade 7 classes take on the hot-button issues of Deforestation, Plastic Pollution, Waste Disposal, and Water Scarcity in a Final Four debate format. And in Grade 8 with Mrs. Brantley or Mr. Hopkins, students learn about their own political heritage with the Sweet Sixteen Presidents Debates.
 
Hayley Brantley, Grade 8 history teacher and Service Learning Coordinator, helps her students develop their research, writing, and public speaking skills all year leading up to the Presidential Debates. Students pick a president at random, write a research paper, and prepare debate materials about the president on areas such as moral integrity and character, presidential appointments, and domestic policy. And, as in Cortner’s classes, the loser of a debate joins the supporting team of the victorious student.
 
Brantley sees how students have matured in the process. “Students are asked to think critically and look for ways to discuss difficult issues in a way that is sensible, thoughtful, and persuasive,” she explains. “We reflect on performances, and I try to help show them that the most successful performances are not those that involve yelling or bombastic behavior, but rather those that are knowledgeable on the subject, curious, and thoughtful throughout.” 
 
In preparing for the debates, Hayley works in discussion around the Harkness tables that are integral to the learning philosophy at the High School level. “While there is a competitive element to it that I think helps make the students more engaged than they otherwise would be in a project about the Presidents,” she observes, “I work to focus on civility throughout, even writing that into the rubrics used for grading and scoring the debates.”
 
Mrs. Cortner’s debates set ground rules from the beginning, as well. “I let them decide which jobs go to which students, based on their strengths,” she explains. “Making these decisions within the group is part of learning how to work together in a respectful manner. Each side can see the other side working together in a courteous way, and I believe this helps foster civil discourse.”
 
With such controversial issues being addressed, Mrs. Cortner is relieved that the students recognize this while preparing for the debates. “Sometimes students ask questions while doing research that could cause friction if we didn’t remember to be civil. I hear them remind one another while preparing their debates, ‘That wouldn’t be respectful. You can’t say that. Take it out.’ The fact that I am not reminding them about civility, they’re reminding each other, means they have gotten the larger message that winning isn’t everything if they’re treating one another badly to get the win.”
 
Cortner herself has learned as much from her students as they have during the debates. “Everyone wants to win,” she explains. “In order to do that in a debate, they have to listen. The students learn that pretty quickly. They can research and be a good speaker, but none of that matters if they don’t listen to their classmates make a point. They won’t be able to respond effectively if they haven’t listened. They also learn that it doesn’t matter if they don’t agree, listening is key.”
 
The experience’s legacy lasts far beyond Middle School. Mrs. Brantley reflects, “Students gain confidence and also a love of learning and engagement through this project. You often hear them discussing the merits of things like the New Deal or the Louisiana Purchase in the hallways during these debates, and I’ve also heard from teachers in the High School that students who have participated in these debates carry the knowledge of their president, and the memories of their debate, with them to classes there.”
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