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Fifth Graders Learn to Debate During Book Club at Pound Ridge Elementary School

PRES students learn to debate Maria Pappace gathered her class of fifth graders around the Promethean Board, which displayed a list of provocative debatable ideas about a text. Before breaking off into their book clubs, the class was learning a new skill: how to debate.

“If I think I can have a debate without prepping, I’m always wrong,” Pappace told her students, adding that she likes to debate with her husband often. “I start throwing out opinions and my husband will refer to articles he’s read that include facts and statistics.”

Pappace went on to explain that a debate requires taking a position and backing it up with evidence.

“The reason becomes more debatable if you have evidence to back it,” she said.

Pappace’s students were about to take their new knowledge and use it to debate the themes of the books they were reading.

“Wouldn’t it be boring if we didn’t have disagreements when we’re reading?” Pappace asked. “Before you go into a debate, be ready. What is it you want to say? What evidence will you be using? You need to listen and let the other person respond to you.”

Once Pappace had explained what a debate is and how to best prepare, students broke off into their book clubs and were given five minutes to organize their thoughts and evidence before they began debating each other. The groups had each chosen a different book to read: Out of My Mind, The Great Gilly Hopkins, The Bridge to Terabithia, and The Hit-Away Kid.

Once the five minutes were up, students turned to their notes and their books, which were marked up with Post-Its that traced the evidence of their themes.

Some groups dove right in, with students referring to specific pages to cite their evidence. Some were so convincing, they began to pull the other side into their camp.

“Hmmm,” one student was heard saying to her partner. “Their reasons are convincing me a little bit that they’re right.” 

One club struggled to find a theme. Pappace, who wove through the clubs listening and interjecting when necessary, helped them find a debatable topic.

“We switched from theme to which character is the nicest,” Pappace said. “A debate was natural when I mentioned that. Two people said ‘Definitely this person!’ and two people said ‘No! It’s this person!’ That was a little more manageable. It’s like picking a just-right book. Picking a just-right topic.”

Pappace went on to say that she would work with the group further to understand the theme of the text while allowing them to practice debating in the moment.

Once the allotted time was over, the class came back together to process their debates and figure out what worked and what did not.PRES book club debate

“We talked well together. We weren’t rude and we handled it well when someone interjected,” one student noted.

“I think we grew our ideas,” another said. “We bunched up some ideas and found a good theme.”

Other students pointed out difficulties. Some groups had trouble staying on topic. Some felt that not everyone was paying attention.

“My group kind of struggled,” one student noted. “When we were debating, one group couldn’t think of an idea. We should think deeper.”

Another student took note of how not having solid evidence changed things.

“Miles and I didn’t have a lot of evidence to prove our argument,” she said. “Mia and Harrison did. It started to get me to hook onto their theme instead of mine.”

Pappace noted that this was the goal for everyone.

“That’s what happens in a good debate!” she said. “If you have good facts and evidence in your debate, you’re going to pull somebody to your side — and that is really the goal.”