Taking a page from the playbook of Jennifer Gonzalez at Cult of Pedagogy, I decided to introduce our new unit on argumentative writing with some informal debate.  On Day 1, we started with this ticket in the door that surveyed students on what they knew about debate.  Students engaged in partner talk (I recommend the “knee to knee, face to face” method)  first about their responses; we then moved to whole group discussion as students shared their responses and thoughts.

Next, students completed the Four Corners debate graphic organizer to prepare what they might want to say on the following statements:

Once students completed their graphic organizer, we started with a couple of rounds of informal debate via Four Corners.

At the end of the day Wednesday, I felt the Four Corners strategy—for whatever reasons—was just falling flat and not working for my students, so I decided to regroup a bit the following day with variations on table talk.

On Thursday, students could choose their groups; the only restrictions were:

  • You must leave your current table group.
  • You may not sit with anyone from your table group.
  • No more than four people per table area.

We began our table talk by sharing what we had to say about each topic and why.  We then moved to a more focused round of discussion and collaboration.  Each group was assigned one of the topics to lead for discussion using the following protocols:

I was pleasantly surprised that this simple approach yielded some lively discussion within table groups and in our large group share.  For several of my classes, this activity generated some of the best work and richest thinking I’ve heard all year.

Next Steps:  Debating with Evidence

For our next round of informal debate, I wanted students to find evidence to back up their stance or claim.  Students were first asked to write how they felt about zoos–are they a good idea, and what makes you say that?  Students composed this response on a lined sticky note.

Next, students were provided two articles about zoos.  On January 23, students received this graphic organizer and began looking for evidence to support each claim.  Students could use mini sticky notes to gather their evidence and/or write directly on the graphic organizer.  I differentiated between my classes by letting two of my sections collaborate and work with a partner; for my accelerated classes, they did their initial thinking and gathering work independently before having a chance to share with a partner on the following day of class and to finalize their work.

Students had half the period on Thursday and half the period on Friday to gather as much research as the could and discuss with a buddy.  For Periods 1, 4, and 5, students lined up on either side of our center table area; I designated one side as the group that would share reasons zoos are beneficial; the other side was designated as the side to share evidence to argue that zoos are not ethical or good for animals.   Students were standing directly across from each other and we did what I called “Ping Pong Pro/Con” debate with a person from one side presenting evidence and then the opposing side would present their evidence.   The primary rule was that you could repeat evidence that anyone had shared, so students sometimes had to drill down into the evidence they had collected.  I was so busy moderating and listening to student responses/taking notes as a formative assessment that I did not get any photos!

This activity was a gentle way of letting students share evidence-based responses and differing views without overwhelming them with rules of formal debate.  In addition, the activity was a fabulous and easy formative assessment because you could quickly hear in the verbal responses if students had correctly pickled relevant evidence for their assigned claim and if they understand the evidence.

For my final class, I decided to do a variation on the activity and have team competitions instead.   Sometimes Friday afternoons with 8th graders require you to be resourceful, and a good old-fashioned competition is an easy to energize tired 8th graders on a Friday afternoon during the last period of the day.  Students compared evidence and prepared what they felt were their five most compelling pieces of evidence for their assigned claim.

Both teams presented well enough that we had to go to sudden death round with teams choosing one final piece of new evidence to make their case!  The team element plus some “Let’s Get Ready to Rumble” music amped up the energy!

In my next post, I’ll share how we moved from these first steps to exploring concepts of claims, counterclaims, and rebuttals.