Teacher resources and professional development across the curriculum

Teacher professional development and classroom resources across the curriculum

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What’s in a Debate

53793166 - render illustration of donkey and elephant icons on podium fronts, and us flag as a background.

Copyright: hafakot / 123RF

It happens every four years. Just when you think you’ve had it with the political campaign season, with the endless ads and diatribes, the presidential debates come along and breathe new life into the process. The debates offer a departure from scripted party-speak. Although the candidates strive to remain “on message,” responding to an opponent’s comments requires a good measure of spontaneity and wit. We watch and listen in the hope that it is our candidate who will deliver the zinger that will long be remembered.

Presidential debates make for fascinating viewing; they are also a launching pad for introducing students to a host of topics. From history to current events, civics to media literacy, debates–presidential and otherwise–provide teachers with endless possibilities to enrich learning.

Television: Altering Perceptions

In 1960, television changed forever how Americans would perceive presidential candidates. In America’s History in the Making, unit 20, “Egalitarian America,” you will find photos of Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy, who starred in the first televised debates. The photographs underscore the impact that visual images can have on communication. How can appearance and body language influence the message a candidate hopes to deliver?  Those who watched the debate on television thought that Kennedy won the debate; those who listened to the debate on the radio thought Nixon was the victor. What accounts for these differing reactions? Do the photographs offer clues?

You may want to conduct a similar activity in your classroom. Pick a short segment of a recently-held presidential or vice presidential debate. First, have students listen to the debate. Who won and why? Now, have students watch the segment on television. Have any opinions changed? Why or why not?

Examine History

There are many historical topics your students can debate. One helpful feature in the America’s History in the Making series is found under the Interactive tab. In the Balancing Sources exercise, you examine events from major eras of American history. You then select several sources to represent different perspectives of the historical event. For example, examine issues related to the transcontinental railroad. In what ways does the summary reveal the many issues related to the expansion of the railroad? How might you use this kind of activity to help students prepare a debate for and against expansion of the American railroad system?  Can this approach be used for all debate topics?

Activate Students’ Learning

Use the debate format in the classroom to give students opportunities to defend their positions on an issue. In preparing for debates, students must research and organize information. They also hone their skills in critical thinking, persuasion, public speaking, and teamwork.

In Teaching Multicultural Literature, workshop 7, “Social Justice and Action,” Laura Alvarez, a teacher at Melrose Elementary School in Oakland, California, uses debates to help her students grapple with issues that affect their lives. Alvarez helps her students conduct their research and gives them a five-step, debate-prep list:

  1. Identify the problem.
  2. Identify someone who could address this problem.
  3. Write a thesis statement that states your opinion about the problem and its solution.
  4. Brainstorm arguments to support your opinion.
  5. Brainstorm counterarguments.

Alvarez understands that many of her fourth- and fifth-grade students may have strong opinions about the issues they discuss, but she ensures that students learn to support their opinions with logical evidence. Take time to review the instructional strategies most appropriate for middle school students who prepare for a debate. In what ways do these strategies help ensure that students are fully engaged in learning?

Constitution Day: Opening the Door to Civic Understanding and Engagement

35288847 - american constitution and us flagThe law establishing September 17th as Constitution Day was created in 2004 with the passage of an amendment proposed by Senator Robert Byrd to that year’s Omnibus Spending Bill. The law renamed the observation formerly known as “Citizenship Day” and before that as “I Am an American Day.” Whatever its moniker, the day is devoted to celebrating the signing of the United States Constitution on September 17, 1787. The 2004 law not only renamed the day, it also mandates that all publicly funded educational institutions provide instruction on the history of the Constitution on that day.

I doubt that anyone would argue that one day is sufficient time for achieving full understanding of the four-page Constitution crafted in secret by 55 men during a hot Philadelphia summer. However, it could be just enough time to instigate further explorations that lead your students to understanding the document’s historical context, and its connection to current issues and events. That’s an excellent step toward civic engagement.

Annenberg Classroom, presented by The Leonore Annenberg Institute for Civics, offers several points of entry to hook your students on the Constitution. For example, the first segment of the video Key Constitutional Concepts is a lively look at the state of the nation in 1787 that led the Framers to that stuffy hall in Philadelphia. It explodes the heroic mythologies that have grown up around the Constitution’s authors and portrays them as ordinary people who were trying to resolve ongoing conflicts within our new nation that the Articles of Confederation failed to resolve. The states were at odds over issues such as state sovereignty, taxation, land claims, and slavery. States threatened each other with war and behaved as sovereign nations. The Federal Convention participants went into Independence Hall thinking they were going to do a bit of tinkering with the Articles to make them more durable. Instead, they essentially threw out the existing, failing government and, through statesmanship and compromise, developed the document that defines our current system of government.

Another approach is to look at the Constitution within the context of current issues. A Call to Act: Ledbetter v. Goodyear Tire and Rubber Co. tells the story of Lilly Ledbetter, who sued her employer when she discovered that she had for years been receiving lower wages than her male counterparts. Her fight for equal pay is a compelling case study of the three branches of government. During the 2012 election campaign and the Democratic convention, Ms. Ledbetter spoke at the convention and the law that has her name on it–the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act of 2009—was frequently cited as a victory for Obama’s first term in office. (Editor’s Note: According to the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, “in 2015, female full-time workers made only 79 cents for every dollar earned by men, a gender wage gap of 21 percent.”)

Constitution Day is a good time to involve students in current conversations on Constitutional issues. Annenberg Classroom’s Speak Outs feature provides blog posts on topics from who decides where refugees settle to whether or not our primary election system works. The blog posts provide background on controversial topics that are making news or being considered in the courts. Students are then invited to share their views. Many of the student posts could serve as models of expository writing for your students.

Search learner.org for even more resources for Constitution Day. Your students might enjoy diving into an aspect of the Constitution that keeps judges, pundits and the rest of us up all night—the vague language that is open to interpretation and fuels ongoing arguments about immigration reform, gun control, and health care reform. Many of today’s court rulings, Senate debates and Facebook rants are based on how individuals interpret the language in the Bill of Rights and other Constitutional amendments. View the first segment of Democracy in America, program 2, “The Constitution: Fixed or Flexible?” with your students about what American society might look like if our Constitution was not open to interpretation.

Constitution Day can be the day your students begin lifelong study of and participation in civic life. What will you do to get them started?

Image Copyright: larryhw / 123RF Stock Photo

Primary Elections Begin

The news is buzzing with information and opinions about GOP candidates as they compete in primary elections across the United States. How do presidential candidates focus their campaigns during primary elections? How can citizens influence a primary election to follow their positions and interests?

The video for Democracy in America, unit 13, “Elections: The Maintenance of Democracy,” answers these questions by examining two cases: Senator John F. Kennedy’s 1960 presidential campaign and the Neighbors for a Better Montgomery County (MD) grassroots movement.

This video, used as professional development or as a classroom tool, illustrates the importance of primary elections and the role of public involvement.