Eighth grader Lulu V. steps up to the lectern and coolly scans her note cards. If she’s anxious, she doesn’t show it. Standing just behind the microphone, Lulu passionately presents her position: “Resolved: Lethal injection is cruel and unusual punishment.” Her carefully crafted rhetorical argument cites Supreme Court opinions and historical evidence. With her partners looking on, Lulu argues passionately for four minutes. The debate is on.
Like all of her 7th and 8th grade peers in Division Two, Lulu’s part in the debate is the culmination of her work in a humanities class unit focusing on U.S. Constitutional history, with an emphasis on developing persuasive arguments.
With the guidance of teachers, Lauren Sekula, Don Smith, Sara Kaviar and Megen O’Keefe, students train for this formal debate intensively with writing, observing and analysis of how pros do it. “We analyzed the elements of persuasive speech by watching the recent Republican presidential debates,” says Sara Kaviar. “The students see the effect that word choice, rhetorical style, and even body language can have on a debater’s effectiveness.”
In teams, students choose debate topics from a menu of authentic, present-day constitutional issues, including religious freedom, censorship, and gun control. To hone their rhetorical skills, students first write persuasive essays that must include supporting evidence for their position, and anticipate and refute counter arguments. Each of these skills will enhance their oral presentation.
And the teachers make sure students are prepared to argue both sides of each case with equal agility, which often means defending positions that run counter to personal beliefs. The exercise requires some serious practice in the Habit of Perspective. In Kaviar and O’Keefe’s class, 8th grader Gabe F. reflected on the benefits of that challenge. “Even though I don’t personally agree with what I’m arguing, getting ready for this debate has helped me to understand the depth of the other argument. I know that I’ll find myself in plenty of conversations and arguments in my life where that will help.”
Back in Sekula and Smith’s class, Lulu’s debate is coming to a close. The students on both sides of the argument have done their best to persuade their peers, citing evidence and finding weaknesses in the other side’s positions. Their fellow students in the class have been following along, taking notes. After the final rebuttal, Sekula thanks the participants and gives them accolades for a job well done.
Applause and high fives abound. Thanks to their thoughtful coaching and conversation with their peers, students on both sides of the debate had a new found confidence in presenting a strong argument and walked away with not only a richer knowledge of the topics debated but also a set of critical thinking skills that will serve them as they move through upper school, college, and their adult lives.