The Great Debates of Grade 7 (part one)


Be it resolved that teaching students how to make deep connections between disciplines, in a limited amount of time, is a ridiculously challenging experience.

Thank goodness for March break (and the warm sun of Florida) to digest and make sense of this learning experience.

A few weeks ago, I posted about one of the learning tasks I recently posed to my students, The Matrix of Connections, which eventually led into what I am going to be describing here, the great debates of Grade 7. Our amazing Grade 7 social studies teacher and I realized that The Book Thief and Canadian History actually, surprisingly, had a great deal in common. We started by articulating the themes in the novel that we could also see threads of in Canadian History (it really helped, I might add, that my social studies colleague deeply understands Canadian History and I have read The Book Thief no fewer than five times…so we could each scour through the seemingly arbitrary pieces of information to make sense of the whole). The three themes that we articulated were: the power of words, the “other”, and resistance. Each column in the Matrix corresponded to one of these themes; one challenge we posed to the students was to try and name each of these categories. In some instances, the student’s titles were much more insightful than my own (my favourite was the “two sides of words”…wow).

All this connecting was just practice for the debates that would challenge the students to build bridges between Canadian History and The Book Thief and we started with those three themes to develop a selection of resolutions.

Debate Composition 3

Points to Argue Over:

My colleague and I drafted up  15 different resolutions that we thought students could find evidence for and against (not an easy task). In a perfect world, we would have had much more time and generating the resolutions would have been a fantastic, challenging experience in critical thinking for our students. But with the restrictive deadline of March break limiting our timeline, we chose to draft them ourselves. Students chose their top three resolutions that they would like to debate and we put them into groups, considering the delicate social and academic needs of our girls.

  • The most common debate topic: “Be it resolved that education is the greatest gift you can give” and “Be it resolved that the pen is mightier than the sword”.
  • The most complex debate topic chosen: “Be it resolved that the first step of ‘othering’ is portraying yourself as morally superior”.
  • The most provocative debate topic argued: “Be it resolved that there are some advantages of being ‘othered'”.

While my students clearly had some agency in their debate experience, I keep coming back to the “voice and choice” module from the Deeper Learning MOOC, specifically one of the readings by my favourite educational contrarian, Alfie Kohn, in which he argues that students need more democratic classrooms and opportunities to practice autonomy in their own learning. While I gave my students choice over their topics and how they would prove why their resolution should stand or fall, much of this experience was dictated by me (the fact that we were going to debate, the resolutions, the groupings, the kinds of evidence that were valid). While I told myself that these restrictions were imposed due to timing, are there ways that I could open up this project for more voice and choice in future years?

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