Bring Our September Debate to Life

Editor’s Note: This year, Choices has expanded its monthly debates to four pages, with even meatier arguments from real teens—and the factual support they need to evaluate those opinions. Here, Lauren DeViney, who is a Project Manager for the New Balance Foundation Billion Mile Race and former high school health teacher in Waltham, MA, shares her tips for stimulating a lively discussion in your classroom.


How Can This Help?

Young people have strong opinions about the value of online friendships. This activity will enable students to solidify the arguments they naturally lean to, while helping them to empathize with their peers on the opposite side of the debate.


What You’ll Need:

Key Skills: NHES 4.8.1 (Apply effective verbal and nonverbal communication skills to enhance health); NHES 8.8.1 (State a health-enhancing position on a topic and support it with accurate information); CCSS.ELA-Literacy.CCRA.SL.2 (Integrate and evaluate information presented in diverse media and formats, including visually, quantitatively, and orally).


The Procedure: 

1. Prepare to Read. Hand out the Debate Organizer Worksheet and instruct students to complete section A, reacting to the question at hand: Are online friends real friends? 


2. Read, Watch, Write. Distribute copies of the Choices article “Are Online Friends Real Friends?” to read, then watch the Huffington Post mini-documentary, The Science of Friendship. Explain that students should fill in section B of their organizer with three strong arguments for each side of the debate while reading the article and watching the mini-documentary. If they would like to include more than three, that’s fine. The intention is for students to tease out the most salient points to support each side of the debate.

3. Establish Ground Rules. Before facilitating a debate in your classroom, establish ground rules. If possible, grade this activity and explain to students that part of their success will be based on their ability to effectively, yet respectfully debate. Examples of ground rules for classroom debates available below!


4. Divide Into Groups. Depending on the size and dynamics of your class, you can either:

a. Divide the entire class in half—group Yes & group No. 

b. Divide students into four groups—A-Yes, B-Yes, A - No, B- No. This results in two simultaneous discussions, and students might find that less intimidating than the previous option. 

5. Circle & Share. Regardless of the format you choose, students should first circle up with classmates who have the same assignment (Yes or No) to share the arguments they jotted down in their organizers. This ensures that everyone on the team has a strong organizer to pull ideas from.

6. Set Up the “Stage.” Arrange six chairs facing each other (3 and 3). These desks are now the benches where members of each team will sit to argue their side. There should be additional desks behind each bench where remaining students will sit while they observe the debate and wait to tap in.

7. Debate! Each person in the class should sit on the bench at least once, sharing an idea from their organizer or something from their personal experience with friendships. The debate ends when all members of the class have had a turn at the bench. Students are graded based on their adherence to the rules of the debate, as well as their general participation.

8. To kick things off, flip a coin to determine which bench will open the debate. Explain to students that there should be a rhythm back and forth. One bench states their argument, then the other side responds and sends it back to the other bench. 

    Tip: Award students who volunteer to sit on their bench in the first round an extra participation point.     

9. Debrief as a group. After the debate, pose questions to the class in a group discussion that will help students analyze the skills they employed in this activity. For example, “For those of you who defended a side of this argument that you don’t necessarily agree with, how did that feel?” or “Do you think it’s helpful to understand both sides of a controversial topic? Why?”. 

A note for teachers: You’ll need to referee the debate to ensure students are adhering to the rules. You might also need to steer the conversation as it evolves. Here are a few additional questions to stir the debate if students get stuck:

  • Can you read or understand the tone of someone’s words and therefore get to know their personality via text?

  • Do young people present balanced versions of themselves via their online personalities? Or do you only get to see the good stuff about their lives on social media?

  • Can you be sure that an online friend is who they say they are? What about “catfishes”? 

  • Is it more challenging to make friends in person or online?

Lastly, remind students to tap in so everyone has a chance to participate!

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