June 12, 2019
Caleb Sanders, High School Social Studies Teacher
There’s nothing like introducing an argument to get students involved with the topics you’re teaching!
Early on in my teaching career, I faced two problems in curriculum design. First, I wanted students to be more involved in their own learning. Up to this point, I had done a decent job in various areas. I had a knack for storytelling, and I found that I could engage students in history and geography through my delivery. Once they were hooked, I could add various activities to the central theme of the story—but I still felt like I was doing too much of the work, and I wanted students to be more involved in the discovery process. Second, good stories take time to master. It takes time to learn the content, and even more time to master the delivery. I just didn’t have a large file of stories that I felt I could deliver in an engaging way, and I definitely didn’t have the time to add to that small reservoir. Like many teachers, I craved engaging activities that didn’t soak up a ton of prep time.
My World Geography class was trying to learn about location and places through the stories of famous explorers during the Age of Exploration. I didn’t really have the knowledge I wanted to get the students engaged in what I felt was a fascinating topic. I felt like the unit was aligned well with various standards, and my assessment was pretty good, but I just didn’t know how to get the students to where I felt they needed to be.
I thought that I could get these freshmen involved by having them present on various explorers and highlighting places of the world that they explored, but it wasn’t my most favorite way to deliver content (student presentations is a topic for a different time). As I read about the explorers in one of my books, I remembered thinking to myself, “Who was the greatest explorer?” The thought then came into my head to actually debate this in class. I thought about the logistics of doing this, then dismissed the idea.
But the idea persisted! I researched how to do a debate in class, but then I didn’t find much that was satisfactory. I had a lot of concerns. My class was big and I didn’t know how to get everyone involved in the debate. I was also unsure of how students would be able to debate something that they were unfamiliar with. How would they get a foundation that was sturdy enough to support a debate? Would I have a winner and a loser? How would I decide who won? How would I grade this? There were a multitude of issues that almost caused me to abandon the idea again.
At this time in my teaching, our administrators had encouraged us to be risk-takers. So I decided to take a risk on an unknown activity. I hoped the plunge wouldn’t be freezing cold! The worse that could happen would be a failed day in class, and I had already been exposed to a few of those. I began to believe that I could do this.
Preparation time was always a concern, but I thought that if I could come up with a template for doing a debate, then I could use it on other questions in my various Social Studies classes. It would take a little leg work up front, and could pay dividends down the road.
The first thing I did once I had the debate question was to select a handful of explorers from the Age of Discovery that could be assigned to different groups of kids. Some of the explorers I knew next to nothing about. I felt that was okay, though, and exposing my deficiencies didn’t make me a bad teacher. I then scheduled the computer lab for one class period that the students could spend on research, and I looked up a few articles that I could refer the students to. They did the research for one class period, and the next day we decided to start the debate. I created primitive guidelines for the debate that totaled a small paragraph. It was nothing fancy.
We began the debate with a little discussion as a whole class about what makes somebody great, and then I explained my guidelines. I told the class that I would give each group a chance to defend their explorer, and then I would give each group a chance to ask other groups questions. I frankly told them that we would feel it out from there. I also told them that I would judge who won the debate, but didn’t explain how I would do that. I had never done this before, and really didn’t want to paint myself into a corner with guidelines that I didn’t even know would work or not.
We began the debate, and a few minutes into it, I knew that this was going to work. The students were engaged, and so I went with it by creating rules on-the-go. I decided to have a break during the debate so groups could collect their thoughts. I added questioning rounds as we went. I asked groups to highlight places in the world so we could tie it back to our unit standards. Later, I would create a listening rule because my groups got so passionate sometimes that I wondered if they were actually listening to each other!
When I concluded the activity and declared a winner, I decided that the biggest winner was… me! I was walking away with a great activity! Sure, I needed to fine-tune some things, but this was an activity that met my needs. It engaged the students, just like my storytelling had done. It would also save me prep time in the future because I then had a template to work with, plus countless questions we could explore in future units. I was impressed with how I was a facilitator of student learning, and less of a deliverer. The students created ideas and made connections that I hadn’t even thought about!
This experience was my motivating factor in creating the Easy Debates series. I wanted to be helpful to other teachers. My intent was to provide teachers with engaging ways to learn that don’t take a large amount of preparation time. I hope that teachers have found them helpful. These debates are still go-to activities for me today!
Recognized as a 2015 Arch Coal Teacher Achievement Award recipient in Wyoming, and as Teacher of the Year by his district, Caleb is also the author of multiple books for Teacher’s Discovery®. He uses mock trials, debates, simulations, and other activities to engage students in lively learning.
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