Tuesday, April 14, 2015

The great debate!

During last night's Twitter chat, one question centered the participants on things that can be done when the planned activity doesn't go so well.  It reminded me of one of the best "pinch hitter" lessons I have experienced.  I was teaching in a 4th/5th grade mixed-age classroom and we were about to get to a major turning point in the book I was reading to the class.  What would the main character do?  What choice would he make?  Would he choose to stand up for his lifelong friend or would he go with the group mentality of the "cool" kids?

It was long enough ago that I don't remember the learning target.  I do remember that I wanted the students to stop and do a wet ink writing activity.  I wanted them to write their prediction of the main character's choice and the reasons they believed he would make that choice.

It bombed.

We had built up to this moment in the book for several days now.  We could tell what was coming and the side chats were getting heated!  I should have noticed this, and maybe I did notice, but I wanted them to write.  When we actually got to the page where he made his choice, I stopped the book and asked them to write.  This class normally did exactly what they were asked to do, but not this time.  They looked at me, then the self-appointed class spokesman told me that she did not want to write.  She wanted to talk about it.

I made my point that I needed them to write about it.  They begrudgingly began to write...for about ten seconds.  Then they started to talk while they wrote.  That lasted about two seconds.  The writing stopped and the chatter increased.  I was steadfast in my directions.  I got them back on their papers for about ten more seconds.  The chatter returned.

I was about to attempt another request to write but I could read this audience and I wasn't going to get what I wanted.

When lessons fail, I do not believe in lowering expectations.  A well-designed lesson hinges upon knowing exactly what your students should be learning and how their mastery of the learning target will be determined.

I needed them to communicate their predictions and the rationale behind those predictions.  There were clearly two choices for the main character and plenty of different rational reasons for each choice.  The kids wanted to talk it out.


Just as I started to beg for them to write, I stopped myself.  They stared at me.  I stared back.  I asked, "Who thinks he will stick by his friend?"  Half the hands flew up!  I asked, "Who thinks he will go with the cool kids?"  The other half of the hands flew up!

I asked each group to go to opposite sides of the room and I started making up rules as I talked.  This could have been a disaster!

It wasn't.  It was awesome!  Once they were separated.  I started announcing the purpose of our debate and the rules we would follow.

"We need to talk this out.  We need to make a prediction and back it up with supporting details from the book.  Each side will have five minutes to talk.  Discuss the reasons why you think you are making the correct prediction for our main character.  Your job is to convince the other team you are correct.  One person will speak at a time.  Once you have spoken, you cannot speak again, until round 2.  Each side will take turns making a point.  You may change sides at any time."

I had no idea what I meant by Round 2!  It didn't matter.  They turned to each other and started having the most incredible conversations about their predictions.  They were pulling out supporting details like never before.  They wanted to convince the other team!

After a few minutes, you could feel the energy in the room.

"We will take turns speaking.  One side, then the other.  I am going to call on individuals randomly to speak.  Listen with your eyes, your ears, and your heart.  If you feel a change of opinion, feel free to quietly walk over to the other side."

I called on the first kid.  She immediately said, "I don't wanna go!"

I replied, "No worries, I want you to pick someone from your team that you think has a valid point."  She chose a student and the first point was heard.  The team clapped wildly!  Too wildly.

"It is great to be enthusiastic about the things you believe.  It is also great to let those beliefs do the talking.  If someone changes teams, it should be from a change of mind, not because of the loudest cheers."

They went back and forth a few times without anyone moving.  I continued to call on kids randomly and had them choose the next speaker.  After a few turns, the person who spoke first walked across to the other side.  The reaction was wild!  I celebrated her courage for walking over.  I celebrated the convincing team for providing a valid point.  I celebrated the entire class for respecting the process.  The next few turns had several kids moving sides.  I'm sure some of them went just to get moving or be noticed.  I'm sure some moved because they truly had no definite opinion anymore.  Regardless, the dialogue continued to be quite powerful.

After a few more turns, I gave each side stickie notes and asked each person to write one supporting reason for their opinion.  They stuck them on the wall near their side and side.  We debriefed the process and the kids loved it!  The feedback was incredible!  They wanted more debate!  I wanted to see if they had learned anything of value.  At that point, I asked for a wet ink writing piece, but that time I asked them to write for two minutes about making predictions and then realizing you are wrong.  Does being right or wrong affect how much you learn?  The responses were amazing!

I loved the debate.  The kids loved it more.  They were engaged and they learned.  They were respectful while being competitive.  Nobody asked about Round Two!


The twitter chat mentioned above was founded by Dave Burgess, author of Teach Like a Pirate.  Join us Mondays at 8pm CST.  Hashtag #TLAP