Argumentative Writing: Debates in Middle School
Updated: Apr 30
Almost all standards across the country call for students to do some sort of argumentative writing and analysis. I see lots of teachers ask how to get their students to write argumentative essays. Well, my students don't. Throughout the school year my students write a research essay and a literary analysis essay...to put them through another essay is torture for me and them. So, instead, we do debates! Read about how I approach debating with my 6th graders.
My school district has a high school debate team that takes it very seriously. My school is lucky enough to host some of the debates right in my own classroom! (It's a very small district). I always ask the teachers who run the debate club if my students can watch. It's a great experience for them to see students who take debate very seriously, even though the topic may be way over their heads!
They simply observe these debates and we don't get into them a whole lot until we start the unit (which is usually much later than when they see the debates). We discuss what they noticed. One of the things they notice is how prepared the high schoolers are when they are in front of the class debating. This is a great segway into to the unit as they will be doing research and trying to be as formal as possible!
I also like to do some fun interactive activities like speed debating. I give them very basic topics to practice debating for a few minutes then switch off to debate with the next person. (Unfortunately, I couldn't do these for this current school year due to COV-ID closures).
Eventually, we dive into our digital notebook. We kick it off with observations of two debates I found on YouTube. I don't expect them to watch the entire debates. We discuss key terms as an introduction and then delve into those later.
I will not call myself an expert at debates in the slightest, so I am happy I teach 6th grade to just give them the bare bones. I did some research of my own and spoke with the 8th grade teacher in my building to see what's typically expected in the upper grades and I scaled my information down to meet my 6th graders' needs.
We begin with pro/con articles from Newsela. These are a lifesaver! They are short and sweet and I have the students analyze the difference between the two "sides". Ultimately, they choose a side and briefly support it with text detail from the article.
They continue to use these types of articles to practice crafting claims. Normally, in an argumentative essay, this would be their thesis. I help them use debate terminology of affirmative and negative. I have them focus on three major points to craft their claims.
Next up is ethos, logos, and pathos. They do struggle with this because they've had NO exposure to this before they get to me. I like to use commercials to help with these concepts. I break down each one as a different lesson each day. I have them return to a pro/con article already read and look for evidence that could fit into each category. Following up to that, I have them create their own ethos, logos, and pathos.
Counterclaims and refutations are next and a cornerstone of debate. Students differentiate between strong and weak counterclaims and learn how to use specific language to refute.
Time to prep for the debate. I give the students a Google Form early in the unit to choose the topic they want. I limit their choices to four topics I already chose because I provide them with the research articles. You may want to go a different direction and let them choose their own topics and do their own research...my kiddos are not quite ready for that. Once they choose their topics, I try very hard to put them in the groups they want. They also choose what side they'd prefer. Unfortunately, they don't always get the side they want, but the research I provide gives them plenty to support each side.
There are about 4 students per group. Each group is a different side of a topic. So, one group of 4 is the affirmative to the question and the other group of 4 is the negative to the question.
The groups then spend time researching in the provided articles. Within their gathering of evidence, I have them get information for BOTH sides and try to match up evidence against each other. The goal being that when they do debate, they have researched the evidence from the other side, too, so they can refute it. My kids do struggle with this a bit, so I don't expect miracles...it's a tough concept to wrap their heads around.
They also spend time separating out the evidence, this way, students aren't overwhelmed and have specific evidence to focus on when they present. I also have them go back to see if they can add any logos, ethos, and pathos. They write opening and closing statements and prepare a notecard to have with them when they research.
I set up the debate with eight desks in front of the classroom facing the rest of the class. Each group goes to a side to debate. It is a little less formal than other debates, as I don't really time it; I just use my discretion.
They begin with the opening act. Then, the other side provides their first argument. The following group can rebut by using the steps of refutation learning earlier by raising their hand. I encourage them to use their evidence to rebut and to focus on what the other group said (we practice a bunch before, too).
The rest of the class fills out an assessment based on the debates they watched and "grade" the presentations. Then, I grade them!
This year, I am attempting this all through Zoom. Stay tuned! I will update here once I get to it...my students just started this unit last week. I may end up making smaller groups since I have less time with them and the plan is to hold the debates on Zoom.
While many choose to do essays for the argumentative standards, I find debates to be more productive. This unit really works into Speaking and Listening standards, too and students, especially at this age, love to socialize so this is a great way to get them to do so! And since this is being done through distance learning this year, it's more important than ever!
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