Enterprising and creative are two adjectives that define Woody Plaut, National Board certified librarian at Konawaena Intermediate. Woody recognized the need for more course electives that inspired critical thinking in his middle school students at Konawaena. Two years ago, this prompted him to create and teach a course in debate. To his knowledge, this is the first public middle school program of its kind in the state.
His debate classes meet during periods 2 and 4 in a six-period block schedule. This means that Woody works with the students three or four times in a full week. The 7th graders meet in a semester class while the 8th graders meet in quarter classes as well as a semester class.
In designing the course, Woody referenced the debate protocols in the Middle School Public Debate Program administered by Claremont Colleges National Debate Outreach. He created a three-day cycle for his course that includes the following:
- Day 1: he divides the class into four teams each with three or four members. Teams select a topic they want to debate, introduce at least one pro and one con for it, and pitch their choices to the other teams. Students vote—the winning topic is placed on the whiteboard. They then use a Socratic format to brainstorm pros and cons for the topic following established protocols and team captains draw which side their team will be debating.
- Day 2: with a lag time of a day or two, students return with outside research they have conducted on the topic. Teams sit at competition tables and have timed sharing of their outside research. They ultimately decide who will be arguing in the three debating slots. Everything is timed with teams listening and strategizing next responses as they hear the arguments back and forth. After scoring their notes, students vote on the winner giving pointed feedback to all the participants.
- Day 3: the remaining two teams debate and a winner is selected. The cycle then repeats.
Woody is enthusiastic about the initiative and its key attributes:
Although the students are given no formal homework, they bring reams of personal research to class knowing that they will be debating and wanting to win. They learn the importance of substantiated claims and more efficient methods of note taking. They practice on-the-fly thinking. With a “no-opt out” class protocol even the shy students, who struggle in the beginning, become more vocal as they give and receive feedback on their work. Woody facilitates the discussion and gives feedback, but his voice is just one of the many. Student grades are self-assigned based on a detailed rubric that includes students justifying why they have given themselves points and for what.
What’s been the response from the rest of the faculty? According to Woody, some of the 6th grade English classes are now doing their own versions of debate. He says, “The 6th grade students have been coming to the library to tell me about it because they have all heard about my classes for the older students.”
How about the school administration’s support for this elective? Woody reports:
As the reputation of the class has grown, the principal has been more and more supportive. For example, I have had no working computers in the library since the beginning of the year though I was promised the computers. Just recently, five computers appeared. This has been a godsend.
Woody’s leadership is evident in his assertive outreach to neighboring schools with the vision of having a middle-to-high school debate league. Toward that end, he has spoken with Janice Blaber, vice principal at Kealakehe Intermediate, who is interested in establishing a similar program at her school. He has also trained a high school teacher at Konawaena High, who has already adopted Woody’s format, instituting a debate class at the high school since the second quarter. A proposal has been submitted to present the idea at next fall’s Schools of the Future Conference to promote a statewide middle school debate program. Stay tuned!
For more details and resources, contact Woody at Woody_Plaut@notes.k12.hi.us