How to Hold Debates in Your Classroom

how to run a debate in your upper elementary classroom

Turn your classroom into a courtroom and hold your own high-interest debates in your classroom to engage students and practice persuasive writing, argumentative discussions, and speaking and listening skills in a safe and structured environment. 

Debates provide students with the opportunity to see that it is OK to disagree with their peers. It also helps them to understand different perspectives and points of view on a variety of topics. 

This can include different holiday and seasonal topics like to have more winter or early spring (think Groundhog Day), should pranks be allowed at school (think April Fools Day), or a generic high-interest topic like, should homework be assigned?

I love using debates in the classroom. 

Not only does it address multiple skills and objectives, it allows students to put all of their persuasive writing strategies and knowledge into action within a real world activity.

While working on debate projects, students will sharpen ALL of these skills:

  • persuasive writing
  • reading
  • research and note-taking
  • point of view
  • listening and speaking
  • collaboration and teamwork
  • public speaking and eye contact
  • conversation etiquette

The best part about holding debates is that it is naturally engaging for students. By directly teaching students how to participate in a debate even your most timid students and reluctant writers will be ready to participate.

Here is how I break down and explain this genre of writing for my upper elementary students to help them understand the nuances specific to debates, as well as make connections to persuasive writing.

What is a Debate? What is Persuasive Writing?

Writing debates is always part of our persuasive writing unit. I love that debates give students the opportunity to use their persuasive writing skills in real-world situations. Here is how I define both persuasive writing and debates for my students:
  • Persuasive writing is a form of opinion writing used to convince others to think in a certain way and persuade the readers to share the writer's point of view.
  • A debate is a formal argument in which there are two sides that take opposing viewpoints and discuss them in an organized and structured way while trying to persuade listeners to share the speaker's point of view. 
By using these definitions, students can easily see the connection between persuasive writing and debate work. We also discuss that a judge will listen to both sides of the debate and decide which side made a better "case" and supported the argument.

Why Participate in a Debate?

How to Hold Debates in Your ClassroomIt is important to me to let students in on the "why" behind the lessons that I teach. When students participate in debates they develop listening and speaking skills. They begin to understand both sides of an argument and gain perspective from their peer's point of view. Additionally, by practicing public speaking in the form of a speech, students' fear of speaking in front of peer groups will decrease. Students need a lot of time to practice speaking in public. Help students get over any insecurities and fear by having them work in groups to debate different topics throughout the year. The more practice they have, the better!

What are Genre Specific Key Words?

Just like other writing genres have key words to signal key points, so do debates. Together as a class we brainstorm persuasive writing words that would help them successfully write an organized debate speech. For example, In my opinion, Consequently, Therefore, Specifically, That is why, are some key words to help you get started brainstorming with your own students.

How are Debates Organized and Written?

debate templates prompts and free lessons for kidsDebate speeches are organized in a familiar format for students. It begins with an introduction, requires supporting details, and ends with a conclusion. This is the same structure that students use when writing about reading. The major difference is the rebuttal component. The idea of a rebuttal is new for upper elementary students so it takes center stage of my lessons. Here is the debate structure I use with my students:
  • Introduction: Introduce yourself, the topic and the side you will be arguing for, and your claim
  • Support Your Idea: Have 3-4 strong and relevant points to support your claim
  • Rebuttal: Address and state a reason that will counter what the opposing side is claiming
  • Conclusion: Restate your claim and points and then thank the audience with eye contact.
Grab this anchor chart and debate topic ideas for FREE at the bottom of this post.

What Makes a Debate Different than Persuasive Writing?

How to Hold Debates in Your Classroom
The key elements that students need to understand when it comes to debates are pros, cons, and rebuttals. To fully understand these concepts students need direct instruction and practice. I love to use modeled writing to help students identify the different elements of debates, especially these three areas:
  • Pro: The pros or proposition side of a debate is the affirmative side. It is the why you believe in the side of the topic you are debating. The pros are for the topic at hand.
  • Con: The con side of a debate is the negative side. It is the why you do not believe in the topic. A con is against the topic at hand.
  • Rebuttal: A rebuttal is a statement made about the opposing side's claim to explain why their claim is wrong.

What are the Steps of a Debate?

Once students write their debate speeches it is time to actually debate. Since debates are structured and organized in such a way that allows both sides to have equal time to speak, students must be aware of the format. Here is a shortened version of the debating speaking order that I use with upper elementary students.
  • Affirmative side speaks to state their claim and supporting details.
  • Negative side speaks to state their claim and supporting details.
  • Negative side states their rebuttal and closing.
  • Affirmative side states their rebuttal and closing.

A Few Tips and Tricks...

    How to Hold Debates in Your Classroom
  • Help students prepare for the debate by creating a checklist to keep them organized.
  • Allow students to pick their own side or mix it up by randomly assigning which side they will be "for". This is a great way to differentiate for your top writers, too. 
  • Assign cooperative group roles to help students stay on track! I have found the best roles to use for debating units are recorders, time keeper, and speakers.
  • Do not try to have students memorize their speeches. Instead, have students write their speeches in bullet form to help them read it fluently while they are presenting.
  • Encourage students to practice their debate speeches within their small groups several times before presenting to help build their confidence.
  • Since speaking in front of their peers can be intimidating, help them feel positive by giving a lot of encouragement and positive praise.
  • Make it fun! Make the kids laugh and giggle at YOU by dressing up as a judge complete with a gavel to take the pressure off the kids!
  • Use the holidays and seasons to engage students in meaningful topics to debate:
  • Use current events and topics of interest for debates, such as:

Holding debates in the classroom is a fun and engaging way to keep students working hard and practicing so many different skills at once. Provide students with many opportunities to debate over topics in the classroom. Not sure of an idea to have students debate about? Ask them! They always come up with the best topics to debate. 

You might be interested in this printable AND digital debate resource.

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debate activities and lessons for elementary

*affiliate links: “Think Grow Giggle is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Amazon.” (source: Section 5)



Simple New Year's Day Activities to Celebrate in Your Classroom

new year resolution and reflection activities for the classroom

I love welcoming students back to school in January after holiday break. There is always a feeling of calm when school begins again. I love that my classroom is clean, all of our projects have been wrapped up, and we are ready to begin new units.

While I am always excited to jump back into teaching, I also like to take the first day back to school to encourage students to be reflective of the past year and set goals for the new year that we are welcoming. These easy-to-implement, yet meaningful activities are a great way to welcome the new year into your classroom.

3-2-1 Reflection

Simple Activities to Ring in the New Year in Your ClassroomI love using 3-2-1 reflection forms all year long. Their predictable nature and easy to respond to prompts make them easy for students to complete on both a prepared worksheet or blank piece of paper. The simplicity of 3-2-1 reflections allow students to stay focused and truly reflect on the topic at hand. Included on the 3-2-1 reflection form that I use when students return to school in January includes: 3 New Things I Learned, 2 Cool Activities I Did, and 1 Question I have About Something that I learned. The kids love writing to these quick prompts and enjoy sharing their reflections with their classmates. This is perfect to use on the last day before break or on the first day back from break. Grab the form that I use for free, or just have students respond to these prompts on a plain piece of paper.

Best Book of the Year

Simple Activities to Ring in the New Year in Your Classroom
This is one of my favorite activities of the year! I love having students fill out these best book reflection pages.
Not only does it give them an opportunity to reflect on a specific book that they read, but it also allows students to reflect on themselves as readers and the book choices that they have made so far this school year. This activity provides students the opportunity to reflect on which genres, series, and authors they read most frequently. After all students have completed one of these best book forms, I display them on our reading bulletin board and they serve as book recommendations so that all students expand the genres, series, and authors they read in the upcoming year.

Goal Setting

Simple Activities to Ring in the New Year in Your ClassroomSetting goals with your students does not have to be a "first day of school" activity. It is a great way to welcome the new year. What I especially love about setting goals in January versus the first day of school is, that by the time January comes around I truly know my students. I know their strengths and weaknesses inside and out and am therefore better able to guide them into setting goals that are appropriate for them. Begin by having students brainstorm one specific area of focus. Improving Writing would be too broad of a goal for students to set. Improving written pieces by including detail and figurative language is specific enough that not only gives students direction, but can be measured. When the goals that students set are SMART (specific, measurable, attainable, relevant and realistic, and timely and tractable) students succeed. Once students set goals, we set aside time each week to reflect on our progress. A simple reflection form is all it takes to make sure students are on track and working towards meeting their goals. Read about how I implement SMART goals in the classroom HERE.

When it comes to welcoming in the new year, go big! Invite students to reflect on their school year, reflect on themselves as learners, and set meaningful goals to continue the year strong! January is a great time for fresh starts and new beginnings. Give your students the opportunity to start the new year on the right path so that the rest of your year, is the best of the year!

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new year resolution bulletin board ideas

Be sure to grab the print and digital reflection forms at the bottom of this post!

Simple Activities to Ring in the New Year in Your Classroom


3 Meaningful Reading Activities for Henry's Freedom Box

henry's freedom box lesson ideas

Every teacher knows that there is nothing more precious than time. We are always in need of more time! More time to help students learn, more time to assess students, more time to plan and create engaging lessons.

One way I love to save time is by re-purposing my favorite read aloud books for different lessons. This is a huge time saver since it cuts down on read aloud time. By being purposeful in selecting picture books to read aloud you will not only gain valuable time in the classroom, but also help students develop a deeper understanding of the books that you are reading aloud.

The picture book, Henry's Freedom Box* written by Ellen Levine is one of my all time favorites. It tells the true story of Henry "Box" Brown who mailed himself from Virginia to Philadelphia to free himself from slavery. His story is one of determination and bravery and became one of the most famous stories from the Underground Railroad.

Here are my favorite reading lessons to do following a read-aloud of Henry's Freedom Box:

Focus on Character Traits

Connecting character trait lessons with biographies is a great way to help students identify traits in people that they know. Often times, character trait units are focused on fictional stories and characters. By shifting character trait work with biography reading, students begin to make the real world connection. When reading Henry's Freedom Box, try one of these two activities:
  1. Have students use a simple t-chart to record 3 character traits Henry shows throughout the book. On the left side of the chart have students record the trait and on the right side, they can record text evidence. To go a step further, have students reread their work and circle one character trait that they also have. Students can write about how they show that trait.
  2. Instead of having students create a list of character traits, present students with a list of 15 different character traits. Simply create a list on chart paper and display during the read aloud. Have students keep a list of the traits that they can find evidence for as they listen. After the reading discuss the character traits and evidence that students found. Here are a few to start your list: determined, loving, caring, self-control, brave, persistent, and patient. 

Determining Importance

determining importance lesson activities
Determining importance requires students to filter out all of the details within a text to focus on the big idea. I teach my students that information from a text is important if it directly supports the main idea. If it does not, then we consider that information to be interesting.  Henry's Freedom Box, lends itself perfectly to helping students distinguish important details from interesting ones.

Try this: Have students record information from the book on a t-chart labeled important and interesting. Remind students that in order to write something on the important side it must support the big or main idea. If it does not, it should be written on the interesting side. If you are just beginning work on determining importance, create a class t-chart to record events from the text under important or interesting headings. Grab free organizers for this activity at the bottom of this post.

Summarizing Nonfiction

Once students have sorted all of the events from the story, they are ready to write a nonfiction summary of the book. I have students use TSMIDS to help them summarize informational texts. This stands for topic statement, main idea, and details that support it. It is an easy to use format that allows students to take the important information from their reading and turn it into a paragraph that summarizes what they read. By having students write a summary from their previous determining importance work connects the use of graphic organizers to support writing during reading.

Here are some other lesson topics that coordinate perfectly with this read aloud:
  1. Reading Informational Text
  2. Understanding Biographies
  3. Black History and Learning about the Underground Railroad
  4. Theme and Life Lessons in Literature
  5. Context Clues

No matter which book you read aloud, be sure to use it many ways! Intentionally select books to share with your students that can be used in a multitude of ways. It is also a great way to show students that good readers read books more than once and with different lenses each time. Henry's Freedom Box*can truly be used across all content areas and will engage your students every time you take it off the shelf.

Be sure to check out our favorite things for upper elementary teachers! 
Meaningful Reading Activities for Henry's Freedom Box

*affiliate links: “Think Grow Giggle is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Amazon.” (source: Section 5)


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