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?
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:
- Identify the problem.
- Identify someone who could address this problem.
- Write a thesis statement that states your opinion about the problem and its solution.
- Brainstorm arguments to support your opinion.
- 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?