Transforming a Class Debate Into So Much More

When Hurricane Sandy formed in the Atlantic Ocean several years ago, few people predicted that it would turn into a superstorm of epic proportions.  It was like the perfect storm of hurricanes.  Just as it was forming and moved northward, it collided with another system, creating the monster hurricane-storm that ravaged much of the northeast coast.  Starting out as just a tiny hurricane that few people watched closely as it formed, Hurricane Sandy transformed into something unbelievable.  Scientists and meteorologists alike were baffled by the unlikely and coincidental transformation.  While it provided much data on superstorms to scientists and was interesting to follow as someone who didn’t live in the storm’s direct path, it was also a very devastating occurrence that caused much damage and loss to millions of people.  It’s always crazy to me how something so normal and natural can transform into something beastly.

Today in Humanities class, the students began working on the debate portion of our American Presidential Election Unit.  I explained the project parts and requirements, fielded questions the students asked, provided the students with their groups, and had them get right to work.  They seemed quite excited about this project.  I think the idea of a little friendly competition helped to foster the fun and excitement that was felt in the classroom when the boys began working this morning.  My co-teacher and I observed the boys as they worked.  Things were going well.  The students got into their assigned groups, discussed the project, and then began brainstorming the perfect presidential candidate.  They discussed how where he was from might impact how he is perceived by the debate judges.  They coexisted effectively, shared responsibilities, and worked well together in their small groups.  They were mostly focused on the topic at hand.  I was impressed.

Then, I went to the restroom and had an epiphany.  To this day, I’m not quite sure what it is about bathrooms, but I do some of my best thinking when I am in a bathroom.  Perhaps it’s the quiet nature of the space or maybe it’s got something to do with the healing properties of water.  Regardless, while I went to the restroom this morning, an idea came to me.  What if we turn this simple, formulaic debate into something greater?  What if we have the two groups debate each other in a townhall-style debate, much like what the presidential candidates did a few weeks ago?  My co-teacher and I could be the moderators and have the students share their stance on the seven different issues.  We could also invite the student body and faculty members to come listen to the debate and then vote.  We could then work as a class to calculate the popular vote and the electoral college outcome to help the students see the difference in how the two systems of tabulating results work.  Wow, I thought.  What a fabulous idea.  I ran it by my co-teacher as the students diligently continued working, unaware of the awesome change about to come.  She loved the idea and so prior to the break in our double-block class, I gathered the student to tell them about the change.  I tried to put a fun spin on the reveal: “Local newspapers picked up the story of your two presidential candidates.  They are so excited.  Then the New York Times and the Boston Globe got word of the story.  So, to help open our debate to the media and the large crowd expected to attend, the format of the debate is changing to a townhall-style debate in which Ms. Murray and I will be the moderators.”  They were so excited about the change.  I also told them that they will need to create a campaign slogan and posters to help promote their candidate.  This announcement received shouts of Yes! from the crowd of students.  They were so pumped.

Following the morning break, the students got right back to work, creating a campaign slogan, campaign posters, and a biographical picture of their candidate.  Where is he or she from?  What made him or her want to run for president?  Why should Americans vote for him or her?  They were focused and on task for the entire time.  It was absolutely amazing.  They were so engaged with the project that they didn’t even realize how hard they were working and how much they were learning.  The students utilized almost every Habit of Learning we try to foster here at Cardigan.  Wow!  When class ended, they couldn’t stop talking about their great ideas and what they are going to work on tomorrow in preparation for the big debate in early December.

So, what began as a simple enough project regarding our unit on the American Presidential Election, ended up transforming  into this vast masterpiece of amazement.  And, this all happened, because I had to go to the bathroom.  Imagine how class might have gone had my bladder not been full of coffee.  The students probably still would have worked well, but perhaps not as well.  They probably wouldn’t have been as invested in the project as they were.  Just like Optimus Prime, today’s activity transformed into something unbelievable and excellent.  Student learning and engagement were heightened because we made the project more life-like.  A Townhall-style debate is much more realistic than a plain, ordinary class debate with noone in attendance.  Making a project more meaningful and memorable helps make the student learning much more tangible and genuine.  It’s so nice when things work out in strange and bizarre ways just as Superstorm Sandy did a few years ago.


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