Category Archives: STEM Debate

#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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My SBG Hybrid (or How I Grade)

I have had several discussions with folks lately about my grading system, what I call a hybrid-version of Standards Based Grading (SBG), and I thought it was time to put it all down in words. I love SBG and working with teachers to develop it (in math and other subjects!). I find that the mere discussion around SBG really forces teachers to hone in on their goals and values. So let me try to share some of my stuff here.

A few starting notes:

  • I love the idea of SBG–grading categories reflect the learning goals of the class and students’ grades will consequently show/measure mastery of the topics in the class.
  • Many versions of “pure” SBG involve a large amount of standards.
  • People seem afraid that SBG won’t fit with a traditional gradebook.
  • I want a system that does not over-complicate my grading and records.
  • For me, SBG and retakes go hand-in-hand.

Both schools I have worked in required me to have some form of a traditional numeric gradebook. So, I had to make sure my version of SBG fit in those structures. I eventually created the system I will talk about below, but let me just mention that it is something I constantly work on improving. My grading systems keep changing from year to year, as I make tweaks based on reflection.

Here’s how mine works:

  1. Standards/Goals: I started by listing all my goals/standards for the semester, what I called Learning Goals (LGs). Thinking of all the content goals or topics we cover in a semester–there are a lot! I wanted to keep things as simple as possible, so over the years I have gotten in the habit of grouping some of the goals into more umbrella goals, aiming for about 8-10 LGs for a semester. As an example, here are my LGs from the first semester of my 7th grade math class. LearningGoalsMy second LG was a combination of many goals including being able to multiply integers, divide integers, and solve multi-step integer equations using order of operations. This is an example of the way my LGs are more umbrella topics. I want to avoid getting too granular with my LGs so there are not too many and that grading can be simpler. For me, a LG is a collection of related topics that I will teach over the course of about 2 weeks (give or take some days).
  2. Categories: There is a reason that I have 9 LGs for each semester–it makes my gradebook work with easy numbers. I didn’t seek out 9. I had more than 9 at various times over the years, but I’ve learned my “sweet spot,” the number that I can easily fill a semester with and that will work for a simple record keeping process. If each LG is a category in my gradebook, and if I weight each LG as 10% of the grade, then that makes up 90% of my gradebook. The other 10%, what I now call the “Effective Effort” category makes up the final 10%. So my gradebook categories look like this: Screen Shot 2016-06-30 at 7.47.44 PMNotice, I no longer have categories labeled Quizzes, Projects, etc. Instead, all these assessment grades are part of the appropriate LG categories. In other words, quizzes, tests and projects make up 90% of my class. The Effective Effort category is where I put grades for homework (which I grade just on completion…my philosophy) and any other classwork points (if you grade on attendance/tardiness, groupwork, participation, etc). What I love about this system, is looking at a student’s grade might look like this: Screen Shots Grades.png These are from a second semester in my middle school class. Can you tell what this student mastered? What she needs help on? Let me clarify the assignments listed:
  3. Quizzes: I give a quiz at the end of each LG, about every 1-2 weeks. These are the summative assessments for each of the LGs, but they are formative assessments for the class. You can see these quizzes in the student gradebook snapshot above. Notice that I also had a graded homework assignment “DeltaMath HW 1” for LG1. My quizzes are always out of 10 points (just to make it easy and consistent) and any other small assessments for the LGs are worth 5 points.
  4. Tests: I see a test as an assessment of multiple LGs all at once. To make grading and recording simple, I write my tests as if they are separate quizzes stapled together. For instance, in the picture above of the student’s grades, you can see there was a Unit 5 Test. This test was 3 pages long, and each page was an assessment of a different LG (LG1, LG2, and LG3). That is why there are three different places the Unit 5 Test is listed in the gradebook. The test was out of 30 points total, but I gave three different 10-point quiz-like grades, instead of a single 30-point grade.
  5. Parent-Teacher Understanding: I need to pause for one second to mention how much teachers and students appreciate this system. Teachers can look at the gradebook of a student they advise and have a detailed conversation about areas of weakness. Parents and tutors can do the same. Rather than saying a student’s grade is low due to some quiz or test, teachers and parents can see that the grade is low due to struggle with a specific topic or two. The gradebook makes more sense. This allows the adults and students to make clear action plans for studying and improvement thanks to the Retakes.
  6. Retakes: An important part of SBG for me is allowing multiple opportunities for re-assessment. If a student struggled with a particular topic on a quiz or test, I allow a retake at any time during the semester. A few notes on that:
    •  A student must make an appointment with me for a retake. It is a privilege, and I reserve the right to say no at any time.
    • Often the retake is just a new quiz, but some students who struggle with test anxiety have worked out alternative methods with me (such as an oral quiz or teaching me how to solve new problems at the board).
    • If the score improves, I replace the old score with the new score.
    • If the score is lower, I do not change the grade, but I have a long conversation with the student about studying and “feeling ready” for a retake…this helps keep down the number of retakes that do not have improved scores after the first month.
    • A student can only retake ONE LG per day.
    • If a student retakes a LG after a test (say the student in the picture above wanted to retake LG2 after a low quiz grade of 75% and a test grade of 60%) and the score is an improvement, I replace all the grades in that category with the new and improved grade, as the student has improved that LG (not just the quiz).

This is my system. I’ve honed in more and more over the years on what I value, what works best for me and for my students, and what is simplistic enough to maintain clarity.



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PBS Webinar

Last year, PBS Boston (WGBH) made some videos in my classroom, as well as several others. The goal was to create an online video library of classrooms with a strong focus on Common Core Standard of Mathematical Practice #3: creating viable arguments and critiquing the reasoning of others. As the online library (called Making the Case) is being finalized and PBS is about to roll it out, WGBH put together a free online webinar for teachers that was both an introduction to the site and a PD for teachers on CCSMP #3…and I was asked to present my debate structures as part of this webinar/PD!

The link to the webinar is here: WGBH Webinar. The first 15mins or so is an introduction to the website and project by the awesome Arthur Smith. Then they show a video of my classroom, followed by a discussion led by me!

It turned out to be a great webinar. Thanks to the many teachers from across the country who joined in!

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Videos of My Classroom!

Last April, WGBH (PBS Boston) spent two full days filming my classroom.  They were filming various teachers from all over the country with a focus on examples of the Common Core Standard of Mathematical Practice #3 “Construct viable arguments and critique the reasoning of others.” It was a great experience resulting in 13 short videos with glimpses into the classrooms of different teachers who work to engage students in discussion and argumentation.  Three of them are just of my classroom, and I am in a large part of three of the others.  All the videos can be seen on the main site here: My cameos are listed below. **NOTE: If you watch more than two videos, it will ask you to create a (free) account before you can watch any more!

1. What I think of as my main video, showing how kids actually debate in my math class:

2. A short video on how I have students create rules and theorems on their own:

3.  A really short video on vocab in math class:

I am also partly in these other videos:

4. Get a second sentence:

5. An overview of the whole PBS project:

6. Some planning with my math department (in the second half):

Enjoy!  Thoughts appreciated!

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Debate PLT

Tuesday night kicked off the first of four monthly meetings I’m co-facilitating with Steve Viola–a Professional Learning Team focused on debate and discussion in the math/science classroom.  We were nervous and excited, and we ended up with 45 awesome teachers!!  Way more than expected!!!!

There’s lots to share, and I hope some of them will be sharing their thoughts on it too.  Just a quick overview of what we did:

1. Soapbox Debate.  Standing up and saying “My Claim is…and my Warrant is…”

2. Research supporting debate in the classroom.

3. Circular Debate.  Same as soapbox with summary of the previous speaker added in.

4.  How to Start/Examples – Steve did a quick talk about the awesome way he introduces these structures into his classroom: using superheroes!

5.  Then we broke out into groups.  Groups completed (1) Table Debates and (2) Discussion about how to start including this in their own classrooms (maybe as soon as the next day?!).

6.  Hopes & Fears.  A final share out, followed by an exit slip.

At then end, we asked them if they were planning and able to come back to part 2 in November.  ALL 45 SAID YES!!

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Math Debating Overview: MTBoS Mission #1

For MTBoS Mission #1, I was tasked to blog about either (1) a favorite open ended question or (2) one thing that makes my classroom distinctly mine.  I’m going to go double or nothing and answer both questions together.

My classroom has a distinct culture of debate (see a few earlier posts like this one or this one).  I try to foster an environment where students are open to discussion, making convincing arguments and critiquing the reasoning of others.  This makes my classroom uniquely me (as I’m also a Speech & Debate coach!).

My favorite rich open ended problem is a debate about the music industry.  The activity where I use it is the culmination of the many debate structures I introduce throughout the semester, ending in a full-scale, class-long debate.   It goes something like this:

A new but promising young artist is trying to decide how to produce his new record. Should he choose a major record label, a legitimate indie label or independent producing? Below are the options.

• Major Record Label wants to sign the new artist. They will give the artist a $200,000 signing bonus, plus the artist will get $0.10 in royalty for each song sold.

• Indie Record Label wants to sign the new artist. They offer a $50,000 signing bonus plus $0.60 in royalty for each song sold.

• Self-Employed artists get to keep all their earnings. It will cost $20,000 for recording time and supplies, but once the record is made, the artist makes $0.80 per song sold.

• Eccentric Billionaire is always interested in new business adventures. He offers the artist $300,000 for full rights to the songs. The billionaire keeps all earnings of the song.


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A New Year of Debating…

After a lovely dinner with the splendid Sam Shah, I realized how much I love discussion of math and pedagogy and want to get caught back up on this blog!  I can’t believe I haven’t written since September.  I will get better.  I promise…

Anyway, classes have been going well, but one thing I wanted to mention (encouraged forever ago by Sam) is how I handle a lot of theorems and conjectures in my class.  I try to make my class as “discovery based” as possible.  It is also of interest to me to model how real math discoveries work.  So, in my class, students are encouraged to be “the first” to discover a new pattern/idea/conjecture, and as a reward, they get to name the conjecture.

Here’s a great example: I start of PreCalc every year with logic.  We explore and/or/if…then statements with concrete examples, abstract symbols (p’s and q’s) and kinesthetically (with this cool note card idea I will blog about someday).  When it comes time to discuss the negation laws, students are given a task to find the negation on their own.  The students struggle with it the first time, but eventually someone comes up with and names the rule for negating an “and” statement.  In the past, it’s been called Kira’s Law or Janelle’s Law, etc…much more fun than DeMorgan’s Law or what my textbook blandly calls Negation Law #1.  Blah…After the first one is named the students go crazy (like, CRAZY) to get to name their own law, and they look forward to new laws being discovered (and sometimes come up with their own side laws!) throughout the year.

What was especially fun this year was students started sharing the naming with their partners.  So instead of Trevor or Moses claiming they were the true founder of the law, they named it the Mosever Law.  Catchy, fun and led to a brief discussion on why some more advanced theorems in math have double names! 🙂

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