Helping Kids Choose a Debate Topic

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If there is one thing teenagers love, it’s arguing. Therefore, I find it relatively easy to get teens to buy into a debate unit, once the initial panic of realizing they will have to do some public speaking wears off. Debate is a high level activity that uses critical thinking, research based methods, thinking fast on your feet, and being able to acknowledge the other side of an argument.

While teaching debate, we watch a lot of clips of presidential debates, and by the end of the unit, when we watch the same clips, the students are appalled at our poorly the candidates debate. Students especially like to point out the major logical fallacies that adults twice their age engage in.

When teaching students the art of debate (or the art of any English lesson) is to give them choice. Students are more apt to become passionate about something they are interested in and that they choose. I tell students that for a topic to work, it needs to be something that is 1. Arguable and 2. Interesting to them. As a class, we brainstorm what they think a debatable topic might be. Students will usually throw out a few ideas and I write them on the board. Gun control, animal abuse and dress codes are usually mentioned among middle schoolers.

I then take the topic of gun control and ask students to list three reasons for more gun control and three against. They easily do this. Then, I take the topic of animal abuse. I ask them to do the same. We always hit a roadblock, as nobody can come up with any reasons in support of animal abuse.

I then challenge them to tweak and narrow the topic a bit. I suggest perhaps having stronger penalties for animal abusers. This is a good lesson in narrowing and specifying the topic, which is an important skill. Again, though, students struggle with arguing for animal abusers. We cross the topic off, as I point out that a good debate topic needs to be fair for both sides to argue. At this point, students are ready to think of their own topic.

Before I let them research on their own, I point them to a website with topic ideas such as www.procon.org, and remind them to choose something that is arguable, and that they are passionate about. I then sit back and listen to their excited chatter knowing that the next few weeks of our debate unit will be such a valuable use of class time!

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