A View from Glen Hill: All in a school day

Things seem to be coming together well for our school budget, and that good financial news is matched by good news “on the ground,” as two recent visits to Middlebrook School reflected.
My first visit took me to the Great Debates program, done every year by Middlebrook’s social studies department. It’s a huge undertaking and presents an extraordinary educational opportunity for the entire eighth grade class. These teachers are giving their students the intellectual foundation and skills in research and analysis to assess how constitutional principles apply to current significant national issues even as the students are also taught, and afforded the opportunity to practice, important skills in oral advocacy.
The program Middlebrook teachers have crafted is definitely one that our students find fully engaging. I hear reports from eighth grade student friends that “the Great Debates are coming” delivered with the same enthusiastic urgency as Paul Revere’s when spreading the word of the British advance “through every Middlesex village and farm!” Hundreds of eighth grade students really throw themselves into the work as they compete in four-person teams on a variety of issues with a constitutional dimension, from regulation of the carrying of concealed weapons to the use of the fruits of searches made incidental to an arrest that turns out to have been faulty. Included in the mix are the lawfulness of lethal injections in death penalty cases given recent botched executions, states’ ability to enact their own (conflicting) marijuana laws, and the use of executive orders for immigration reform. (As to the latter, did you know the Louisiana Purchase was done by executive order, as one of the student teams I observed debating noted in part of its argument?)


Debate points are earned based not on polemics but on the constitutional provisions marshaled, the pertinent cases cited and summarized, the facts gathered and organized, and the overall persuasiveness of the presentations. And nothing focuses students’ attention quite so much as knowing they will be speaking in front of their peers! Even as students are learning principles of constitutional law and how to apply them in real-world situations, they are also learning how to organize and present a position through oral advocacy as well as in written submissions. Their teachers, Andy Cloutier, Marni Kiernan, and Tim Ley, act as judges for each debate, often splitting 2-to-1 in close decisions and each always offering an extended extemporaneous discussion of his or her basis for decision. They also invite the many classmates watching the debate to submit their own written opinions as affirmations of, or rebuttals to, their teachers’ decisions.
It’s hard to imagine a better way for students to learn how law is formulated in the crucible of actual cases and the decisions that follow from them, subject to reversal or amplification as appellate courts consider the same record and applicable precedent. It’s also hard to imagine a more demanding process for teachers, who must not only design the program but also judge the results of each debate “in real time” and then review the enormous amount of written work product as well as the debates themselves.
What these teachers are giving our students is a remarkable gift of learning interactively and applying the same processes that will be part of their needed tool kits throughout their lives. As University of Connecticut president and political scientist Susan Herbst urges in her recent book, Rude Democracy: Civility and Incivility in American Politics , students should be taught as early as middle school to engage in making persuasive arguments based on careful, fact-based analysis “for success not only in school but also in life.” Those skills are part of what she sees as fundamental grounding for a civil society. Our students are privileged to have that opportunity based on the hard work and creativity of their teachers.


During my second visit, I watched a two-person team from nonprofit Shakesperience Productions at work in Cat Hourigan’s classroom of 20 seventh grade students. What they did was absolutely spellbinding even as it often had us all, young and this old folk alike, laughing and cheering. They enrolled students as actors in scenes from Macbeth and King Lear , and they also discussed how verse works, how actors performed and audiences responded in Shakespeare’s time, and how language evolves and words change meaning over time periods as short as a generation and as long as 400 years. What a way to make great literature come alive for our young people!
Two wonderfully creative programs in an extraordinary school system.

Mr. Hudspeth lives on Glen Hill Road.