Debates can be a powerful tool in the classroom.  They can hit all strands of the Common Core ELA standards and they appeal to the upper levels of Bloom’s Taxonomy.  Well, that is if they are actual debates.  The first few times I tried to incorporate a debate into my lesson, I admit I was unprepared.  In my mind I thought I could just give a topic, let the students research, then watch the young minds engage in meaningful discourse.  What actual transpired was a disorganized screaming match.  However, through years of trial and error, I have gathered a few tips and tricks to help make class debates a success.

1.  Teach Students Debate Vocabulary

Part of the allure of using a debate is that it’s a high-interest activity, and who wants to slow down the class enthusiasm with a vocab lesson?  However, giving students the proper terms to use will help them understand more than just the lingo they should be using – it will help them understand that what they are engaging in is not just a glorified argument.  Debatable Kids has a great list of terms.  If that list is overwhelming, I would focus on: Proponent, Opponent, Resolution, Rebuttal, and Argument.

2.  Have an Audience

One of the mistakes I made when I first tried a class-debate was using one topic for the entire class.  I had the students divide themselves based on which side they agreed with which resulted in everyone choosing one side, and then yelling at the other side about why they were wrong.  The point of a debate isn’t to try and convince the other side to agree with you (after all, they’re just as passionate about their topic as you are!).  The point is to provide logical arguments to convince a non-biased third party. This is why having an audience is essential for a debate to be successful.  If you are only having one debate topic for the entire class, then see if you can collaborate with a fellow teacher to have her class serve as the audience.  This is a great idea if the classes are studying the same unit.  Otherwise, provide a few different debate topics, so while one group of students is debating the rest of the class can be the audience.

Helpful Hint:  Give your audience members an easy chart to take notes on during the debate.  If you label it with categories (list of arguments, support given, logical evidence) it will force them to be more involved.

3.  Let Students Pick Their Side

I used to randomly assign students to a side in a debate.  The kids would groan when I handed out topics, arguing that it would be impossible to support something they didn’t agree with.  I would shrug my shoulders and tell them that they’d have to learn how to look at the topic from a new perspective.  There may be something to that, but if you are doing a large debate involving a few days of research, try to let the students debate for their sides.  The students will be much more passionate and engaged in the research if they are trying to support something they believe in.

If you really want to make a point about looking from different perspectives, try this short activity before diving into your main debate lesson.  Have students write down a resolution statement (I believe __ because __) with three reasons to support it.  Assign them partners.  Make them trade resolutions and argue on the opposite side.  Their partner will get to use their three reasons against them, forcing them to really think about the other perspective of the topic.

4.  Divide Time Between Debate and Discuss

If you just tell students, “ready, set, debate!” I guarantee they will start a shouting match.  I know that is what the students are looking forward to, but I make sure to keep my debates organized so that each side has a chance to give its arguments before the back and forth begins.  Allowing each side time to give their arguments and supporting evidence will do two things:  1. It will encourage the students to do more research prior to the debate so they don’t stand there with nothing to say during that time.  2.  It will give the other side reasonable points to refute, so they can’t just yell, “Well, no.  You’re wrong.”  If you really want to get technical, you can use a formal debate structure like the Karl Popper format.

5.  Have Students Write an Opening and Closing Speech

The word “speech” here can be misleading.  Their opening and closing may be nothing more than a few sentences, and that’s fine.  The real purpose is that creating an opening forces students to identify exactly what they are debating.  It gives them a reference point if the debate starts to get off track.  I usually tell me students that the opening should include their resolution, and then a list of their arguments.  They can go into more detail later.  The closing, on the other hand, gives students a chance to restate their resolution and add more emotion and passion to their arguments.

Check out my Teachers Pay Teachers store for a Debate Packet I created filled with graphic organizers to easily add debate to any classroom!