Wilton eighth graders debate political issues

Will Matthews photos
Earlier this month, political debates took place at Middlebrook School as part of the eighth grade’s annual Great Debates research project.

Every eighth grader participates in the 10th annual event, which is “a summative assessment for the unit on the Constitution and American government,” said social studies teacher Marnia Kiernan.

The students are grouped into four- or five-person debate teams and each assigned a position on a current political issue.

Within their teams, students are assigned roles that match their strength and interests, said Kiernan, who said the students are given three weeks to research their topics and create evidence-based arguments before debating in front of teachers and peers.

“The project is differentiated to challenge students at all levels,” she said. “We purposefully choose issues that vary in complexity, and the Learning Commons has resources available at different reading levels.”

Kiernan said the project reinforces several 21st Century skills, including collaboration, communication, critical thinking, information literacy and problem solving; and “encourages students to begin to see themselves as responsible and proactive citizens.”

“We choose issues that are currently being debated by politicians and policymakers,” said Kiernan, who spent “a lot of time” in October and November “reading SCOTUSblog to identify issues that are current, interesting and accessible to students.”

The climate debate during this year’s Great Debates, for example, was based on the 2015 case Michigan v. EPA, said Kiernan.

“In our debate, students argue whether federal EPA [Environmental Protection Agency] regulations are appropriate and necessary,” she said, “or if each state should create and enforce their own environmental protection laws.”

While topics like capital punishment and gun control were returned to during this year’s Great Debates, Kiernan said, new topics included:

  • Whether police body cameras violate a person’s right to privacy.

  • Whether the president has the right to raise the number of Syrian refugees allowed in the country.

  • Whether Congress should close the tax loophole for online businesses.

“As the conversation around these issues change, so do our debates,” said Kiernan. “This year, for example, we’ve revised the gun control debate to focus on the legality of universal background checks.”

Kiernan said teachers serve as coaches in the Great Debates project and help students understand their tropics, guide them to find reliable and accessible sources, and make sense of the evidence.

“We work closely with students every step of the way, but they’re really the ones taking charge of their own learning,” she said. “It’s impressive to see how some students take a topic and run with it.”

Kiernan said she developed the Great Debates project in 2005 with former social studies teachers Andy Cloutier and Tim Ley “to give all eighth grade students an assured experience researching and defending an argument using the Constitution, Supreme Court cases and data as evidence.”

“We built the project up over the last decade and it became a ‘rite of passage’ among Middlebrook students,” she said. “Andy and Tim moved on to other positions in the district this year, but the project remained intact.”

This fall, Kiernan said, she worked with Middlebrook’s two new eighth grade social studies teachers, Maria Lateef and Michael Panoli, to review and adapt the project for this year’s students.

While the project is a social studies project, Kiernan said, students used skills from their other classes.

For example, she said, language arts teachers have taught students how to develop an argument using a claim, evidence and counterclaim — skills that are reinforced in the Great Debates project.

While she loves “when a student comes to class and says, ‘I heard my topic addressed on TV last night,’” because “it shows [that] they’re making connections between what happens in class and what happens in the real world,” Kiernan said, her favorite part about the project is listening to students debate.

Many students are nervous but “overcome their fear of public speaking and present cohesive arguments on complex topics,” said Kiernan.

“It is so rewarding to hear 13- and 14- year-old kids quoting Supreme Court justices and citing the Constitution. Oftentimes, these political discussions continue in the halls or the cafeteria,” she said.

“How many people can say they hear teenagers debating due process rights without being prompted?”

Kiernan said she is “so proud” of the work students do for the Great Debates project.

“It’s a steep learning curve for most students, but they rise to the challenge and rarely cease to impress me,” she said.

“Watching students tackle complex political issues and present cohesive arguments supported with Constitutional evidence makes me optimistic for their, and our, future.”

Kiernan said the eighth graders finished debating on Friday, Jan. 22, and teachers have been having conferences to give the students individual feedback.