Civics in Action

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3 Debate Protocols for 8th grade “Civics in Action”

Drafted by Meira Levinson

McCormack Middle School

Version2: August 3, 2004

Research conclusively demonstrates that in-class debates are one of the most effective techniques for fostering the skills and attitudes that promote active citizenship. This draft is designed to give teachers some guidance in how effectively to incorporate regular classroom debates into their lesson plans.

Recommended sources of debate topics and materials:

(arranged roughly from most to least self-evidently relevant to students)

  • Issues of immediate importance to students (e.g., if there was a fight during first period, and students are riled up about it, turn it into a debate about the best way for students and the school to manage and resolve conflicts between students)

  • School- and student-related topics (school disciplinary policy, ways to improve lunches, teen-age curfew, car insurance, etc.)

  • Current events (e.g. war in Iraq, presidential election, city council election, increased murders in Dorchester, high-stakes graduation requirements like MCAS, etc.)

  • Curricular knowledge (e.g. should we keep the electoral college? should it be easier to amend the constitution? should judicial nominees be expected to answer questions about their personal beliefs? etc.)

  • Video clips (from news, movies, advertisements, etc.)

  • Quotations (from historical figures, documents such as the Constitution or Letter from Birmingham Jail, works of literature, current celebrities or politicians, etc.)

  • Historical debates (e.g., Virginia Plan vs. New Jersey Plan: these may turn into simulations, rather than debates per se)

Structuring debates

There are formal debating structures and protocols, most notably Lincoln-Douglas debates and parliamentary debates. If teachers are interested, they may read more about these two approaches by following these links: (Lincoln-Douglas debate); (parliamentary debate). I will say nothing more about these types of debates here, however, since a great deal of information is available about formal debate on the web, and because these are not really the types of debate that we expect teachers to incorporate into their teaching on a regular basis.

Even informal debates need some structure, however, so that students are encouraged to participate, progress beyond initial impressions about the pros and cons of an issue, and learn from the experience. This packet contains three suggested protocols for informal debates, arranged roughly from least to most structured. Please note that they are merely suggestions: none of these are required, and teachers may of course modify these protocols to serve their students’ needs better. If you have time, please e-mail improvements/modifications to Meira.

I. “Ball-Toss” Debate

Time required: 15-30 minutes

Suggested uses: This debate structure is excellent for spontaneous debates and debates about issues on which students have not explicitly prepared. It is best suited, therefore, to topics that students already know and care about, including as a way to address and resolve conflicts or other problems within the classroom (i.e., students’ not showing respect to each other, or low homework completion rates). It can be used effectively as a regularly scheduled activity (i.e., every other Friday), especially since it requires no additional prep time. If the debate is regularly scheduled about current events, it may be a way to encourage students to pay attention to the news (and to assess their understanding). Students participate as individuals; hence, this debate structure does not necessarily promote scaffolded knowledge, peer groupings, etc.

Materials needed: soft, medium-sized ball

plastic or Styrofoam cups (optional)

debate topic/question

copies of the “sentence stems” and “questions to ask yourself” lists –posted visibly in the room or in each student’s interactive notebook (see end of this document for samples)

Room set-up: desks arranged in a large circle

Special roles: Facilitator (at beginning of year, will be teacher; as year progresses, students should take over)

Description of special roles:

The facilitator introduces the topic for debate and reminds students about the rules/protocol. Although the facilitator starts with the ball in his hand, he is the one person permitted to speak during the debate without the ball. Once the debate has begun, the roles of the facilitator are to:

  • make sure the debate stays on topic

  • remind students when necessary about the rules/protocol

  • keep rough track of who has been waiting to speak

  • instruct students to toss the ball to a student who has been waiting a long time, hasn’t yet spoken, or is being ignored, say, because she holds an unpopular view

  • to give a five-minute warning before the debate ends

  • pose 1-2 summing-up questions (see list at end of this document) that all students must answer either orally going around the circle or in writing in their interactive notebooks


    1. The facilitator introduces the topic for debate, lets students know how much time is available for the debate, reviews the rules/protocol, and reminds students to use the “sentence stems” and “questions to ask yourself” lists.

    2. If using cups, cups are distributed and students place a cup upright on their desk.

    3. The facilitator tosses the ball to the first person who wants to speak on the topic, and the debate begins.

    4. Only one person may speak at a time: namely, the person who is holding the ball

    5. Students may speak for a maximum of 90 seconds while they have the ball

    6. Students who wish to speak should raise their hands (or turn over a cup on their desk): when the first speaker has finished making her point, she tosses the ball to one of the students who has their hands raised (or cup turned over)

    7. Students who have a point of immediate relevance/importance may indicate that by raising their hand and raising their index finger in their air, or by placing their cups sideways on their desk (or by tapping them once on the desk when they turn them over)

    8. In general, students who have not yet spoken have precedence for receiving the ball over those who have already spoken

    9. If two students really disagree with each other, however, they may toss the ball back and forth between each other to argue the point: they must pass the ball on to someone else, however, after a maximum of three back-and-forths, and they may not reenter the debate for another 5 minutes. (The facilitator may modify or forbid this, as appropriate/needed.)

    10. At the end of the debate, the facilitator poses 1-2 summing-up questions (see sample list below). Depending on the instructions given by the teacher or facilitator, students may pass the ball around the circle and answer the question(s) orally, answer in writing in their interactive civics notebooks, or answer first in writing and then volunteer to share their written answers orally. At least 5 minutes should be reserved by the teacher for this portion of the activity.

Assessment: The “ball-toss debate” may be assessed more or less formally. Assessment in any case should be considered formative rather than summative. Possible criteria for assessment include: adherence to protocols, originality or creativity, staying on point, convincing someone else to change his/her mind, showing respect for differing points of view, and giving thoughtful answers to summing-up questions.

A set of possible rubrics are included in this packet. Version 1 assesses students’ participation in the debate and their quality of reflection. Version 2 assesses these things plus students’ attention to and comprehension of current events or other content knowledge. Versions 3 and 4 are similar to Versions 1 and 2, respectively, but remove the “Reflection” criteria in case students write their reflections in their journal or interactive notebooks, which are scored separately.

II. “Take a Stand” Debate

Time required: 10-15 minutes

Suggested Uses: Can be used as a warm-up or introductory activity to a topic, lesson, or unit. Should not require any specialized knowledge, and is most effective with topics that students personally care about.

Materials needed: Timer

Four position sheets (sheets of paper), titled “Strongly Agree,” “Agree,” “Disagree,” and “Strongly Disagree”

Room set-up: Position sheets should be taped to wall in four different locations of the room in which there’s room for students to stand without bumping into furniture or each other

If you take the “Square Off” approach, then desks can be moved into squares of four, or left as normal if students stand for the “Square Off” debate.

If you take the “Fishbowl” approach, then desks should be arranged in an inner circle of 4-6 desks, and an outer circle of the rest of the desks

Special roles: None.


  1. Teacher reads out a statement that takes a controversial position on an issue.

  2. Students stand by the position paper that most accurately describes their response: Strongly Agree, Agree, Disagree, or Strongly Disagree. (Don’t give a “Not sure” or “I don’t know” option, or else that will allow students to opt out and/or not force themselves to “take a stand.”)

  3. Two different approaches may be taken at this point:

Square Off” Debate

    1. Students move to stand or sit in squares of 4, with one student from each position (Strongly Agree, Agree, Disagree, Strongly Disagree). (If students are unequally distributed among the positions, then some modifications to this structure will obviously need to be made.)

    2. The “Agree” students (which includes both “agree” and “strongly agree”) have 1½ minutes to change the minds of the students who disagree (or strongly disagree).

    3. The “Disagree” students then have 2½ minutes to respond to the “Agree” students’ arguments as well as to convince them of the “disagree” position.

    4. Finally, the “Agree” students have 1 minute to respond to the “Disagree” students’ arguments. (The teacher will need to use a timer to keep students on track.)

Fishbowl” Debate

    1. 2-3 students from the “Strongly Agree” camp and 2-3 students from the “Strongly Disagree” camp go into the middle of the fishbowl. The other students sit in the outer circle around them.

    2. Students in the fishbowl then debate the proposition, following the protocol for the “Square Off” debate.

  1. The teacher then rereads the original statement, and students stand up and go to the spot that most accurately describe their response now.

  2. Teacher asks a summing-up question that students may discuss from their standing positions or once they’re back in their seats, or that they write about in their interactive notebooks.

Assessment: Assessment may be more or less formal for this activity. Possible criteria for assessment include: adherence to protocols, originality or creativity, staying on point, convincing someone else to change his/her mind, showing respect for differing points of view, and giving thoughtful answers to summing-up questions.

Sample rubrics are included in this packet.

III. “Topic on Trial” Debate

Time needed: Anywhere from 45 minutes (20 min prep time, 20 min debate, 5 min reflection) to 3-5 days (if used as a means to structure a whole mini-unit on a topic). The first time the “Topic on Trial” debate format is used, it will probably require a full period of prep time plus a full period of debate and reflection time so that students learn the various roles and structure. As students get more familiar with it, however, it can certainly be accomplished within a single class period.

Suggested uses: This debate structure is excellent for helping students learn about a topic quickly, and for demonstrating to them the components and structure of a persuasive argument. It is best used, therefore, to help students master some content knowledge, including current events, and/or to master the skills of persuasive argumentation. Depending on the needs of the class and desire/ambition of the teacher, prep time can take as little as 20 minutes or as much as two (or more) days. It can be used effectively as a regularly scheduled activity (i.e., every other Friday); in this case, prep time would need to be kept to 20 minutes and the debate would take the rest of the period. Students work with a small group but have roles for which they are individually responsible, thus combining the benefits of cooperative grouping with individual accountability and assessment.

Materials needed:


debate topic, posed as a statement (e.g. “Boston should impose a 9 p.m. curfew on all youth ages 16 or under Sunday through Thursday evenings.” or “The best way to address the needs of homeless families in Boston is to encourage individuals and churches to donate money to homeless shelters” or “The city of Boston unequally and unfairly funds some neighborhoods more than others.”) [Note: I have provided these three examples to show how this debate protocol may be used for a quick, one-period debate that relies on little research and content knowledge, or for a multi-day project that requires students to do a fair amount of research.]

information resources (newspapers, text book, reference books, primary sources, computer, CD-Roms, internet connection, etc.)

job designations written on pieces of paper

copies of job descriptions and prep and debate protocols for all students

2-4 poster boards and sets of markers/paints/scissors for graphic artists

Room set-up: Prep: desks in groups of 2-4

job designation sheets (e.g. “affirmative lawyers”) taped to desks

research station ideally at computer(s)

Debate: Desks for panel of judges in front of classroom

Affirmative team desks at center right

Negative team desks at center left

Journalists’ desks to the side

Special roles: Panel of judges

Affirmative team: constructive lawyers, response lawyers, closing lawyers, researchers, graphic artists

Negative team: constructive lawyers, response lawyers, closing lawyers, researchers, graphic artists


Description of special roles:

The number of students who take each role will, of course, vary depending on the size of the class.

Judge: The role of the judge is to listen to the debate and decide, in conference with the other judges, which side wins. Each judge will be expected to be able to justify his/her decision orally and in writing. There should ideally be 3-5 judges.
Note: It is best either to assign the judges also to serve as researchers, or to draw judges from another class or even another grade. This removes the burden of creating an activity for the judges during prep time. If judges come from another class, it also (positively) increases the burden on the students to make clear and compelling arguments, since judges from another class or grade may know nothing about the topic ahead of time.

Constructive lawyer: The constructive lawyers are expected to provide arguments in favor of their position (either affirmative [affirming the statement] or negative [supporting the opposite of the statement]). Each lawyer is expected to speak: if there are three constructive lawyers for the affirmative side, therefore, then they should come up with at least three good arguments in favor of their position so that each lawyer can present one argument.

Response lawyer: The response lawyers will provide arguments against the other side’s position. They will select the best arguments the other side gives and show why they’re wrong.

Closing lawyers: These lawyers summarize both the constructive and the response arguments given by their side.

Researchers: Researchers should have access to a dictionary; newspapers, textbook, reference books, or other print materials relevant to the topic of the debate; and ideally to a computer with an Internet hook-up. They are responsible for answering questions from lawyers, graphic artists, and journalists, as well as for finding information proactively themselves.

Note: If researchers are doubling as judges, then they should be non-partisan, and assist all classmates equally. If they are not doubling as judges, they may be assigned to a side (affirmative or negative). In this case, they will proactively find and feed information to the lawyers on their side, as well as find answers to questions that the lawyers and artists ask them.

Graphic artists: The graphic artists should create an attractive, compelling graphic that uses symbols or one of the principles of advertising (bandwagon, smear tactics, experts, etc.) to support their side’s position. Depending on the amount of time available and number of graphic artists, they may be asked to create two graphics: one that represents a constructive argument, and one that responds to the other side.

Journalists: Journalists research the issue, listen to preparations on both sides, watch the trial, and then report on the results to the class (or in the school newspaper, over the morning announcements, at a cluster meeting, etc.).

Prep Protocol:

  1. Teacher presents the debate statement orally and in writing (e.g. on the board).

  2. Using the board or chart paper, the teacher takes 5-15 minutes to lead students as a class in brainstorming answers to complete the following chart:

Arguments in favor of position [affirmative constructive]

Arguments in favor of opposite position [negative constructive]

Arguments against position [negative response]

Arguments against opposite position [affirmative response]

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