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November 10, 2011 Engaging Middle School Students in Space Debates By Mary Blow
Grades 6–8

    Photo courtesy of Virgin Galactic

    When designing a Common Core unit or teaching a Common Core lesson, I have learned that it is best to jump right in. It may not be perfect the first time around, but the important thing is to start. I just finished teaching my first Common Core unit, a Space Debate unit. In this post, I share my new unit, including my SMART Board activities, which my students and I enjoyed very much.


    Complex Informational Text for the Space Debate Unit

    In the Space Debate Unit, students debate the question "Should the average person be allowed to vacation in space?" The anchor text for this unit is an article from Scope magazine , “Your Next Vacation: Outer Space?” (19 Sept. 2011). If you haven’t checked out Scope in a while, it is well worth your time. They publish a plethora of resources to address the Common Core, and each issue features a new debate. In this article, students learn about the Enterprise, a spaceship designed by Virgin Galactic, a company that is turning commercial space travel into a tourist attraction. I use the Lexile Analyzer as one method of measuring text complexity. The Lexile measure for this article is 1090L, which is well within the 955L–1155L band recommended for grades 6 through 8. The mean sentence length is 15 words, which suggests that the sentence structure will vary enough to challenge my students.


    Lesson 1: Reading Informational Text

    I admit that I have been struggling with the idea, from the Common Core, of throwing students into an unfamiliar topic without providing background information. What about all the research that suggests students need to build upon prior knowledge? What about preteaching vocabulary to increase comprehension? Throwing students into a piece of literature, fiction or nonfiction, without background knowledge is like teaching children to swim by throwing them into the deep end of a pool. So, what do we do?


    My dilemma was resolved last month at the New York State Reading Association Fall Conference. Author and teacher Laura Robb gave a presentation on teaching students to create their own background information. Robb suggests that students establish background knowledge by reading the first two paragraphs and the last paragraph to predict what the article is about. She also encourages the use of word concept maps to activate prior knowledge and learn vocabulary words. I have tried both of these approaches, and I will be forever grateful to Robb for these two practical tips. My plan for lesson 1 will walk you through these activities step by step.


    Lesson 2: Collaborative Note-Taking

    Beware of collaboration that allows some students to take advantage of others' efforts. Student accountability is important. In lesson 2 , students work independently to take notes, identifying and listing text-based details that could defend the two sides of the argument. The image to the right shows my students working in pairs to evaluate each other’s details, sorting them into affirmative and negative sides of the debate.


    In order to manage the diverse needs in the classroom, I have students engage in mini-research, which allows them to seek additional information to strengthen their position. Students who read or write more slowly use the time for those activities instead. Eventually all the students will be doing research. For those who do it now, I kept it simple by providing Fast Fact” cards. All students engage in the classroom debate using the text-based details from the article and any research they do.


    Lesson 3: Verbal Debates in the Classroom

    The classroom is divided into two teams for the debate: affirmative and negative. To sort the students, I have one student from each pair pick a side, and I flip a coin. Students take their notes with them to their team. Using an interactive balance scale on my SMART Board, the class weighs each detail as it is presented. The visual illustrates how some details are stronger than others and that commentary, verbal or written, is necessary to support their position. Otherwise, the opposing team can use the detail against them. The team with the strongest or “heaviest” support wins. Having students defend their positions verbally prepares them for putting their ideas into writing. If they can say it, they can write it. Download lesson 3  and the SMART Board activity.


    Lesson 4: Persuasive Writing Activity

    The culminating activity requires each student to outline and write a persuasive paragraph supporting his or her preferred side of the argument. They must utilize relevant, text-based details to persuade their audience to think as they do. We revisit the article to study the author’s craft: grammar, sentence structure, and organization of details. Analyzing the author’s craft leads to a classroom discussion on effectively organizing the details in a persuasive paragraph. For lesson 4 ,I created a Paragraph Outline handout to guide the process.


    Lesson 5: Word Processing

    The Common Core asks us to have our student publish their work online, but we are not ready for that yet. So, at the beginning of the year, I teach them how to format paragraphs as a precursor to typing essays and contest entries. It is best to start with a paragraph because students who struggle with keyboarding often lose their train of thought and produce written pieces with incomplete ideas. Engaging in keyboarding also helps them develop skills necessary for future digital assessments. Each student keeps a Formatting Guide in his or her notebook for future reference. I also posted copies above the computers in the classroom.



    The concluding activity for this unit is one of my favorite activities for teaching textual details. I like the exposure to a plethora of topics it offers and the level of engagement it promotes. My heart explodes when I hear them discussing the relevancy of a detail or how one detail is stronger than another.


    It is even better when you can conclude the unit by exploring careers in commercial space travel. Visit the Virgin Galactic media library  to watch some of the test flight videos.


    Additional Resources

    For more on this unit, visit the Web page I designed for my student and the Space Debate Teacher Resource  page I created for colleagues. Feel free to download and use the unit in your classroom. It easily adapts to any grade level.

    If you are new to debates, you might like the book Extraordinary Debates by Tamra B. Orr. Orr provides activities that engage students in out-of-the-box thinking. Other debate resources include:




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