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The Devil’s Advocate

It’s finally that time of year!

March research brings April debates to my Sophomore English classes. Sure, maybe not the most creative of units, and maybe not really the best way to link in all of the aesthetically stimulating work done through Pages. BUT, it’s a way to get my students thinking critically about a topic they may not get the chance to otherwise.

Side-note, I’m currently reading a book called “Lies My Teacher Told Me”, written by James W. Loewen, and he says in the introduction that one problem with American history textbooks is that students finish with them “without having develop the ability to think coherently about social life”. I get it. I really do. While I’m not a history teacher, and I DO NOT USE textbooks, (Not having access to decent ones in the U.K. for eight years may have something to do with that.) I firmly believe that part of my role as an educator is to develop that ability. Get my students to think critically; make connections to what they are doing/learning about to REAL LIFE.

My debate unit is called “The Devil’s Advocate” and the reason for that is because my students are researching an argument that I give them; one I also decide whether they are “for”, “against” or “the devil’s advocate”. Potential arguments are “All ‘Dreamers’ who are in the United States illegally should be given a path to residency or citizenship” and “The death penalty should be legal in all 50 states”. My students get some say in which topic they choose, as they decide which three they’d be interested in and also have the opportunity to go into a bit more detail about their thoughts and feelings on the topic in preliminary work.

However, when it comes to choosing the sides, I let differentiation take over. Administrators love that word. Some students are given a side that I think they can access and relate to, some are given a side because they don’t know what side they are on and need the opportunity to learn about both sides, and some are given a side because I feel they need to be stretched either academically or ideologically.

They have around three weeks to research and prepare for the debates, as well as to write a letter of petition addressing an aspect of the topic/argument. The letter does not have to be on the argument, but it has to be to a real live person or group. For example, if they are requesting that Columbus should be a sanctuary city, they could write to their letter to the Mayor asking for this. Or if they feel that Ohio should keep the death penalty, they might write to Gov. Mike DeWine.

Every year there are heated discussions and debates. But I also have students who come up to me afterwards and say they’ve had a genuine change of mind. I’m not looking to change anyone’s mind or ideological views on any of the topics, nor do they ever hear my views on any of them. However, what I do hope is that they get the time and space to have an informed and researched discussion.

A civil debate.

It would be nice if more of us adults could do the same, right?

1 Comment »

  1. This is a great way for students to think about both sides of an argument; learn how to thoughtfully debate a challenging topic. While it might not seem like it, this work is in conversation with our work in Pages. We encounter various challenging topics over the course of the Pages year and my hope is that those challenging topics and experiences during the Pages year support and help prepare students for this work.

    As a final note, I would be remiss if I did not suggest one way to insert a bit of arts-integration. After students have done their research, argued their positions on either or both sides, one idea is to have them present both positions of their arguments in a creative way. Maybe they could make a series of images, use video, write a song or use only music, or construct a short theatrical performance. They could draw a cartoon strip or collage both sides of their arguments as a visual demonstration. They could write to flash essays or two poems using figurative yet persuasive techniques and language.

    Here’s to lots of thoughtful debating this spring! Looking forward to hearing how it goes. -Dionne

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