View from Glen Hill: The great debates

The old saying is that you don’t want to see the sausage being made. But in this case, the making is every bit as good as the excellent end results!

For several years now, I’ve been attending some of the eighth-grade Great Debates at Middlebrook School, mostly to watch confirmands Becky and I teach in church tackling something at school into which we know they’ve put lots of thought and effort. This year, though, I happened to be in Middlebrook for another reason early on in the debate-prep process. So I dropped in on an initial class in this Great Debate segment of the social studies program in which all eighth-grade students participate. I did so at the kind invitation of social studies teacher Michael Panoli who, with Marni Kiernan and Maria Lateef, run this program, assisted by paraprofessionals Beatriz Carvajal, Nancy Graham and Christine Pucci.

The program is a huge undertaking and presents an extraordinary educational opportunity for the entire eighth-grade class. It’s hard to imagine a more demanding process for their teachers who must not only design the program but also judge the results of each of the almost 50 debates among over 350 students, with comments offered orally after each debate, and then review the enormous amount of written work product generated during the whole program, which ended a month ago. Their dedication is emblematic of the work done by inspired and inspiring teachers across our whole school system.

The topics debated ranged from immigration to stop and frisk, from Apple’s refusal to unlock its iPhones at our government’s request to the appropriate treatment of government whistleblowers, from background checks to capital punishment, from drone strikes against U.S. citizens engaged in terrorist activities to required Selective Service Act compliance for women.

Now back to the sausage being made: The very substantive 12-page initial class handout opens by encouragingly noting to students “the importance of argument skills … to excel in school and develop as young adults.” It then summarizes these specifics: “Working with your assigned group, you will research your topic, gather relevant evidence, develop strong and coherent claims” and present before a large audience of your peers — a strong motivator if ever there was one! Along with their arguments, students also prepare focused questions to be posed to and answered by their opposition during debate, and the arguments in debates I observed were sophisticated and illuminating with much fact-based cross-questioning and focused give-and-take.

That handout also quotes conclusions of a study on best practices by the National Governors’ and Chief School Officers’ Association: “The ability to frame and defend an argument is particularly important to students’ readiness for college and careers.” Most important is a point underscored by Panoli as he opened that first preparation class, “Winning or losing your debate will not impact your grade.” What he and his fellow teachers are looking for is “careful research and sound arguments based on constitutional principles” and on case law that elucidates the meaning of these principles in specific fact settings: “Your grade will be based on your research and your ability to connect the Constitution, its amendments, and court cases to your argument.” Thus, debate points are earned based not on polemics but on the constitutional provisions marshaled, the pertinent cases cited and summarized, the specific facts carefully researched and organized, and the overall persuasiveness of the presentations.

From there, this initial classroom discussion moved on to source materials, with librarian Lori Ellis adding her own warning about the dubious reliability of certain online sources and identification of more reliable ones. The accomplished Wilton High School Debate Team, themselves graduates of this long-running eighth-grade program, presented a debate for the whole eighth-grade class to kick the process off.

It is clear that the skills being developed by our eighth graders in Middlebrook’s Great-Debates program lay the foundation for their future presentation of positions in even more sophisticated and demanding ways. The reasoning and public-speaking skills nurtured here are ones that will hold them in very good stead indeed in later years — whether in conference and board rooms or in classrooms and public meetings, as well as in courtrooms and legislative proceedings.

With the development of these skills also goes a growth in personal confidence in the ability to express oneself well in public — in clear, factually grounded, and persuasive terms, whatever the circumstances. In fact, those skills are part of the fundamental grounding for a civil society, and we can always use a heavy dose of that!