Introducing History Through Debate

As a Latin teacher, I’m always eager to expose students to the great political sweep of epic events that is Roman history but stymied by the fact that students aren’t ready to read Suetonius, Livy, or Tacitus (not to mention our Greek sources) at real length and depth. Some textbook series include historical material, of course, but these readings are often basic and/or dry to many students and aren’t nearly as intriguing and inspiring without a lot of structuring by the teacher. At the same time I love rhetoric and persuasive technique, items central to the ancient thrust of education, another subject difficult for students to readily grasp when they’re still struggling with vocabulary, grammar, and the periodic structure, say, of Cicero’s speeches.
All of this was percolating in my head last year about the same time as I learned about the LAPIS Project’s CARD-tamen game decks and saw Kevin Ballestrini’s demonstration at the CANE 2012 conference. I thought struck me – could I use debate and argument as a method to examine the themes and personalities of the Romans?
I started by using the CARD-tamen deck as-is; I gave a pair of cards to each student (if you don’t know, a CARD-tamen deck consists of cards showing a person, place, divinity, etc. with some background information) and one of its debate topics (e.g. “What was more important to the development of Rome?”) Students had a week to research their cards and come back ready to debate in small groups of four students each. I created a basic rubric on which students were to debate and evaluate each other (use of time; relevance of facts; persuasiveness; confidence and body language), and then they’d trade cards for the next debate. Each student spoke for 1-2 minutes followed by a discussion within the group to determine the winner.
This initial structure had a few problems, but the biggest was that, since many students didn’t yet know the details of their peers cards, it was difficult for them to judge the validity of the opponents’ arguments. Students also lost cards occasionally, so my deck got smaller as the year progressed. The students also wanted a chance to rebut the arguments of their opponents, and so we added that into the rubric and the structure. Also, because the debates were peer-reviewed and varied widely between groups, it wasn’t always easy for me to critique individuals on technique or validity of argument. What to do?
I decided to structure a larger, class debate in which the students read Plutarch’s Lives of Marius and Sulla, argued over their use of power and propaganda, and ultimately took a side on whom they would support if they’d been a Roman living then. The debate was moderated by myself and judged by the principal and a pair of teachers who had a free period during the class. I used a structure a social studies colleague had suggested – intro statements by each side, rebuttals, and then final statements, with a break in-between each stage for students to formulate responses. This was very successful, and the greater depth allowed us to discuss afterward what kinds of arguments were valid and which weren’t, which informed their own future debates.
As part of the class midterm, students were paired up and given the topic of “Who was the better leader?” They could pick any Roman they wanted, but had to share their choice with their opponent. Each student researched and I evaluated them based on the same criteria I’d used in their peer debates, with the added category of rebuttal, in which I examined how well a student countered specific arguments made by the other side. Students liked this idea so much that I switched by model from random CARD-tamen cards to a pair of figures and a more-specific debate topic that each of the small groups used to debate.
I’ll continue to refine and use debating as a technique to study history. The students have a lot of enthusiasm (who doesn’t enjoy a good debate), and they’ll go to great lengths in research if it means they can one-up a friend or a rival in class. They’re always asking when our next debate is, and students in Latin 2 (I’d conducted the experiment in Latin 3) are already looking forward to it!
Does anyone include debate in their classes? I’d love to hear any experiences, tips, or tricks that you’ve used in your own classes, or how the experience works out for you if you try it for the first time.

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