We tried something new this week and launched our character analysis unit with a text based debate! I got this idea from attending a debate related workshop at the Capital Area Progressive Schools conference at Green Acres last month. Our students LOVE debating so we had to try it out.
The idea of a text based debate is that students agree or disagree with a claim about a character and find evidence from the text to back up their argument. We used the book Fox by Margaret Wild and Ron Brooks. The claim we used was: Magpie is a good friend. If you don't know the book, you should check it out!
We started by having students do a quick write in their writer's notebooks answering the question: what makes someone a good friend? Then, we read Fox aloud and has students turn and talk with a partner to answer the question: Is Magpie a good friend? Their homework that night was to re-read the text and find evidence that Magpie IS and IS NOT a good friend. We warned them that they had to find evidence for both sides as they could be assigned to debate PRO or CON.
Students came in the next day buzzing with excitement, evidence, and complex reasoning. We had them debate in teams of two and reminded them about debate norms and expectations first. Kid President's How to Disagree video is a great resource for this! We watched it before our Columbus Day debates so didn't re-watch it, but reminded students about it. They practiced language such as "I respectfully disagree" and "You made a good point, but .."
Debating commenced! PRO teams started with 3 minutes, then 3 minutes CON and then 2 minutes for rebuttals on both sides. We ended with 5 minutes discussion time in our debate groups where students had to discuss how the debate went and try to come to a claim they could all agree on and support with their combined evidence. This involves complex compromise, analysis, and understanding of characters as multi-faceted. Students came up with: Magpie is trying to be a good friend, she is a good friend but slips up, the best friends are ones who disagree and more!
Our debate helped students think about Magpie as a real character and see different perspectives in the story (and the world). As part of their homework, they had to connect their reflections from the debate to their own life. They answered the prompt "I'm the kind of friend who.." and made thoughtful and honest connections to their own lives.
One of our students reflected,
"After the debates today, I think Magpie is a good friend because even though she made the mistake of going with Fox and abandoning Dog, she realized her mistake and fixed it. [By going back to Dog.] Dog and Magpie also have similarities (Dog is blind in one eye, Magpie has an injured wing), and then they fix those losses. [Magpie is Dog’s eye, and Dog is Magpie’s injured wing.] Magpie is just a friend who made a mistake."
He also wrote 5 reasons to back up his argument instead of the required 3! This level of engagement and analysis is wonderful, especially at the beginning of a unit. It also applies so well to our social justice work as a reminder that stories (and people) are complex and our understandings and responses to them are unique and reflect our perspectives.
This activity also reminded students how to respectfully disagree and helped them realize that multiple viewpoints had validity because stories (and life) are nuanced with many perspectives and layers. In the words of Kid President, remember to "treat people like people, people!"
Please comment with questions or other ideas. We LOVE this new structure and want to keep trying it out!