#talklessAM (or the nitty gritty on starting debate)

I just got back from TMC16, where I was lucky to get to co-facilitate a three-part morning session called “Talk Less, Smile More: Getting Students to Discuss and Debate Math” for a big group of awesome teachers! My co-facilitator Mattie was awesome! The group was awesome! What a great time!

Gloating aside, one question that always comes up when I talk about introducing debate is How to Start? In the session, we talk about sentence starters, writing good questions, and give participants time to experience the activities, but there’s still that question on how to explicitly begin. On top of this, I just had a phone conversation with a great public school teacher in LA that had been to a workshop of mine a month earlier. He is going into his third year, but his commitment to try debate this coming year and his deep questioning of the how to get started was inspiring. Through all these conversations, I’ve tried to nail down all the important details of how I begin, and I thought I’d share the nitty gritty on how I get these routines started in my classroom.

(Disclaimer: this is just a detailed account of how I do it. There is no one way, but hearing this may help you figure out your way.)

Day 1: First day of school is usually a little chaotic: students need to find the room, find a seat, fill out and decorate a nameplate, get a syllabus or supply list, etc. Sometimes the classes are also short. So I usually don’t debate on Day 1. However, I do get the community of discussion going by forming a circle and having students  introduce themselves, usually with their name, where they are from, and then something goofy like “my one superpower would be” or “if I could be any cartoon character.” I follow that up by doing some math. It is my philosophy that in a math class, we should do some math every day. There are a lot of great open ended, all level problems to start with like the Locker Problem, The Camel Problem or the card challenge “Skip Flip.” I will have to share these in another post.

Day 2: I want to introduce debating as soon as possible. So Day 2 is usually the day. When students enter, they see directions on the board to create an argument for three different topics. As they file into their assigned seats, they silently take out their notebooks and attempt to write an argument for each prompt. The slide looks like this:

Screen Shot 2016-07-25 at 1.57.43 PM

After some writing time, I have all the students stop and tell them that before we begin, I need to teach them HOW to make an argument/how to debate. (This used to make total sense at my old school when I was the debate coach, but students at my new school don’t seem to mind.) I show the following slides:

Screen Shot 2016-07-25 at 1.58.54 PM.png

Screen Shot 2016-07-25 at 1.59.00 PM.png

I briefly give the definition of an argument, but I try to minimize that. The key is the way we breakdown an argument into Claim and Warrant. So I define those two words for the students and then say that the mathematical formula for an argument is


I stress that the only thing they have to takeaway from this slide is the sentence starter:

 “My claim is…   and my warrant is…”

I also have this hung on all four walls of my classroom. It is important to have it on multiple walls so that students can see it no matter what direction they are facing during a discussion.

Screen Shot 2016-07-25 at 2.00.36 PM.png

The next slide takes us back to the original three questions that I want students to make arguments about. This is when I give them the directions for how to do a “Soapbox Debate.” (This phrase is a bit outdated to our students, but I love explaining it to them.) Directions are:

  1. When you are called on, you must stand.
  2. You must use the words “my clam is…   my warrant is…”
  3. If you are not speaking, your shoulders and knees must turn toward the speaker.
  4. Our eyes should be on the speaker (who should be standing)
  5. Only the person standing is speaking. The rest of us are listening.

When I give the directions, it is done orally and they are not numbered. I simply explain them. I just listed them out for ease of reading.

Then (and this is where it takes a moment of bravery on the teacher) I jump in with the first speaker! Some notes on this:

  • I usually ask for volunteers in the first days of school because I don’t want to make a shier student too uncomfortable (and I will work out ideas with them later)
  • That said, sometimes students can all be quiet. So I may have to cold-call on students. It can be startling, but I try to do it with as much positivity and as non-pushy as possible.
  • I make the speaker stand. Even if they don’t want to. I just smile/laugh, say it’s ok, and tell them to stand up.
  • I correct the speaker on the spot if they don’t use the words Claim and Warrant.
  • I sit down before I call on the first speaker. I want the speaker to be the only one in the room standing.
  • I am hyper-vigilant that every student is turned toward the speaker and looking at the speaker. Though I have passed over the discussion control to a student, I am working even harder to make sure everyone is following along (while trying to keep all messaging positive).
  • After the first student, I (still sitting) call on another.
  • Depending on the question and responses, I may only have 3, 4 or 5 speakers for each question. That means 3 students share their favorite movie, then I move onto the second topic and have a few students share out. Sometimes it’s only 1 or 2 for whatever reason. I try to read the room.

And that’s it. Overall, it may take 5-10mins only. I am very actively watching students, correcting body language and sentence starters.

The rest of class may not involve explicit debating again. Early in the year, I tend to just spend roughly 5 minutes per day doing debate activities as the warm up. Then, even though I do not explicitly do a formalized soapbox debate, the culture of student discussion often spills over into rest of class.

Final Thoughts:

  • Standing is important. Students may be a little uncomfortable but it is important in establishing the culture and getting students a little out of their comfort zone/passive learning.
  • Using the sentence structure “my claim is…my warrant is…” is something I stick to in every response. In later weeks, I may not bother to correct students who don’t use this exact structure, but stressing it in the beginning sets the pattern that answers always have two parts in my class. Students just get in the habit of always explaining their work.
  • When I introduce all the structures, I always start with some kind of “fun” topic, like the best movie or best musician. After that we only debate math. It helps to lower the stress of learning a new structure if the content is something students find interesting and are easily opinionated about.

And that’s really it. Everything else I do throughout the year is just variations on soap box debating, a mix of oral (standing) debates and written work that includes warrants (explaining).


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