It's not hard to find a hot debate on television — be it the rights of adoptees on The Oprah Winfrey Show, or welfare reform on a policy program such as Crossfire. I capitalize on students' fascination with the best-known of these programs by having them stage mock versions of these shows.
- I ask kids to choose a talk-show format — such as three or four people of divergent viewpoints or one or several sources being questioned by a panel of skeptical journalists. Students may want to watch clips from shows such as Meet the Press or others to get a feel for the different formats.
- Students review in detail the problem or issue they'll be discussing on their show. (Recent topics my students have debated include homelessness, population growth, and poverty.) We also determine the purpose of the show — to find an answer, generate multiple solutions, air diverse opinions, or come to a consensus.
- I guide the kids away from framing issues in terms of pros and cons, and instead focus their perceptions on the balance between costs and benefits. In our increasingly complex world, issues are seldom clearly defined as pros versus cons.
- We do a random drawing to select a student host; volunteers then pose as guests who will represent a variety of opinions. Students think about the topic overnight but don't prepare scripts. My goal is to capture the spontaneity of live television debates and give kids practice in thinking on their feet. I tell the kids: The secret to good thinking on your feet is to know more than you need to know.
- My students learn how to present a reasoned point of view. While many talk-show guests are not particularly articulate or well-mannered, our goal is to be well-spoken, courteous, accurate, succinct, and respectful. Students practice writing and speaking with language such as "From my point of view. . .", "One consideration is. . .", "Some people feel. . .", and other appropriate phrases that they choose from the Reminder Chart that we keep hanging in the classroom.
- Before the video cameras roll (with peers doing the taping), we invite judges, lawyers, and other professionals who examine evidence and weigh arguments on the job to come in and model how they think through problems, as well as give examples of how they phrase their thoughts. Sometimes these guests watch a taping of our talk show and critique the class effort.
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Simulating a Senate Hearing
We use this strategy to debate topics such as destruction of old-growth forests, endangered species, solid waste disposal, and immigration. Here's how:
- As a class, we decide on a topic, such as "The Endangered Species Act is outdated and should be rewritten," to be brought before the Senate committee. Then students identify the special-interest groups that, having a stake in the outcome, will want to lobby for their point of view; we randomly place kids in these groups. Four or five students are selected to play the roles of the senators, and one is chosen as chair of the proceedings.
- Together we watch proceedings on C-SPAN to get a feel for what takes place in a hearing, what proper procedure is, and so on. We discuss what we see and how we can reenact it.
- Each special-interest group (SIG) has ten minutes to present its point of view and offer a solution. While the groups prepare, the senators generate questions they'll ask during the presentations.
- Usually we have a social hour prior to the hearing during which SIG members informally discuss the issue with at least two senators. At that time, the lobbyists often show one-minute taped commercials they've created or act them out live.
- Put the table for the Senate committee at the front and chairs in rows — theater-style — for the presenters, and have flip charts, the overhead projector, and other presentation tools on hand.
- Once the chairperson strikes the gavel, the formal proceedings come to order. The chair greets all present and states the purpose of the hearing. Then the senators individually identify themselves and their constituencies, after which the chair asks one of the SIGs to begin its presentation. Committee members may interrupt the presenters at any time to ask questions or to clarify issues. A timekeeper ensures that no group takes more than the allotted ten minutes.
- Once each group has presented, the chair leads the senators in a discussion of what they have heard and what action they feel ought to be taken. Lobbyists may not interject comments. Finally, the chair restates the problem and announces the Senate's decision.
- To debrief, I like to have kids reflect on the process by writing: What I Did, What I Learned, How I Feel.
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Because we usually videotape our hearings and talk shows, we can use them as in-class video portfolios. Throughout the year we use the videos to monitor progress in the art of expression and persuasion. Kids can take the tapes home to share with their parents. I slip a comment card in each video so parents can respond.
C-SPAN in the Classroom, along with other educational materials, is offering a free Campaign '96 Educators' Kit to its members. Membership is free, too. For information, call (800) 523-7586.
The Center for Civic Education's Law in a Free Society offers a series for grades K-12 that focuses on the concepts of authority, privacy, responsibility, and justice as fundamental values and principles of a constitutional democracy. Contact the Center at 5146 Douglas Fir Rd., Calabasas, CA 91302-1467; (800) 350-4223.