Debating with Google Docs

Judge Diephouse and future lawyers of America
First of all, I love being a third year teacher. I finally know my curriculum, and I can spending time polishing my lessons.

In 8th grade we read "Flowers for Algernon," selections from the novel by Daniel Keyes. It tells the story of Charlie Gordon, a 37-year-old man with mental disabilities. He has an experimental surgery that causes him to quickly gain knowledge. However, he just as quickly loses those abilities. One of my favorite things to do with this story is debate if the surgery was "worth it." Students become really attached to Charlie Gordon as a character, and enter into the debate with many opinions.

Step 1: Create Arguments
Students pick a side and create a collaborative Google Doc for their team. They share it with one another and with me. As a team they develop a thesis statement (main argument). Since this is our first unit of this year, the group-work helps them remember how to create an effective thesis statement. After they develop a thesis they create three specific main arguments that support it.

Step 2: Organize Arguments
For homework that night, students must find 2-3 quotes that support their team's thesis. They are to add each one to the Google Doc under the specific argument it supports.

Step 3: Create Statements
I divided the teams into pairs and each pair worked together to create a paragraph. One pair wrote the opening argument, three pairs wrote the main arguments, and one pair wrote the closing statement. They used the evidence their team gathered to fully explain how the evidence proved their point.

I added this part in this year, and I have mixed feelings about it. I love how it made everyone involved and organized their thoughts, but I think it squelched some of the passion that comes in spontaneity.

Step 4: Debate!
These are some of my favorite days in 8th grade. We line up the desks, I dress up in a graduation/judge's robe, and we debate.

Here's the format we did today:
Opening Argument - 3 minutes
                         | Main Point #__ - 5 minutes
                         | Plan - 2 minutes
For each point: | Counter Argument - 3 minutes
                         | Plan - 1 minute
                         | Rebuttal - 1 minute
Closing Statement

During the debate, each student has a laptop with the Google Doc. They can chat in the document about what the other team argues and how they will respond. They also end up encouraging one another. These are some of the things they wrote today (please ignore the improper capitalization and punctuation... I'm trying to remember that speed/communication is the important part of this exercise.):
  • "
    they are probably going to talk about death and the danger of it not working. think of how to respond to that"
  • "they are also probably going to talk about how sad he was and how he went away from new york"
  • "I think how we should respond to them by saying the surgery did give him great social intelligence and reading people's emotions and he still had confidence and determination that he can become smarter and he did not pass away." Another student responds to him, "YES"
  • "WE need to find the page rebuttals before we stand!"
  • "Last paragraph on the first column on 225 shows that he starts to regret saying yes soon before the operation."
I love the use of chat in the middle of the debate because it gives people who don't normally speak up a place to be heard. Every single student talks throughout the class period either audibly or digitally. They think critically, develop arguments, and express themselves. This digital communication is an important skill for these students' futures. 

This year I had a few parents and our superintendent come in as a jury as well, which has been a fun way to include them in the process. It also helps by creating a "real" audience for them to present to. It's a big deal to have these adults in the room listening and judging their arguments.

I'm always looking for ways to put debate into my classroom because it engages students in communicating and supporting an argument. Even though an essay teaches the same skill, students are more invested in a debate, and therefore, they create higher quality arguments.