It's the first day of our new unit, and, as I explain to the class, we begin by exploring the key ideas we will encounter through a debate. This will serve as an introduction to the content and an engaging activity for the whole class.
I give students a debate sheet with 5 quotes from Emerson and Thoreau, our focus authors. I ask students to agree or disagree with each statement and justify their claim with examples or reasoning so that they have notes to use during the debate. Some students worry that they are not interpreting the quotes correctly; I point out that varying interpretations will lead to a full debate, so it's okay.
After 10 minutes, students are prepared to debate.
Students are prepared to debate, but before we dive in, we need to set ground rules:
Rules established, we set up the room for debate. Tables are pushed to the edges, and chairs are lined up in 4 rows, 2 and 2 facing into the center of the room. With only debate sheets in hand, students take a seat for the first round, agrees on one side of the room and disagrees on the other.
I serve as referee for the debate and make note of who spoke; a student helper keeps track of points "won" (or those points which are not refuted by the opposing team).
Our first round runs smoothly. We pause after to summarize key points won and identify the winning side, and then we shift positions for the second round. Repeat. Students enjoy digging into the language of the quotes and offering real world examples:
In this audio clip, students debate "Our life is frittered away by details" (Thoreau). Notice how they work to define the term "details" and how they have control of the debate. This is student-led inquiry at work as students work toward the ability to close read a text, noticing how each word influences meaning.
Students' discussion veers away from the text at times, connecting to the world and other non-text examples. While this takes us away from the standard itself, the activity is still valuable; students are engaging with the ideas and the text I will ask them to analyze for the standards during the rest of the unit. Without engagement, this future standard work will be a struggle. Besides, making connections is an excellent strategy for reading comprehension.
At the end of the hour, I reiterate that these are ideas we will encounter all unit and that tomorrow, we will delve into the over-arching theme of transcendence.
I have used this lesson every year since I started teaching, and every year it is a great success. The movement from one side to the other keeps students actively involved, and the debate itself keeps them mentally involved. Because they control who speaks and how quickly they move, there is a sense of student ownership; they truly care and want to win even though there is no prize. Best of all, they explore all angles of the transcendental quotes I have provided. Later, they greet these quotes as friends when we encounter them in the reading and feel more confident in their interpretations of the texts. Truly, this is a winning lesson.
I've also adapted this lesson to other units. Typically, I pull themes from the novel or play we are studying to use in place of the quotes, allowing my class to explore the big picture first. It never fails to engage students and help them anticipate what we will encounter in lessons to come.