INTRODUCTION: Students in my freshman composition course are often confused by how to construct an argument. In an effort to help them generate ideas and strategies for writing an argumentation essay, I turn our classroom into a courtroom. The resulting debate gives students a chance to express themselves verbally before writing, providing an experience which aids greatly in their planning process. Our classroom debates not only provide a forum for students to test their own ideas, but also allow them to hear alternative ideas courtesy of their classmates. This experience is also an effective way to get every student in the classroom participating.
Classroom Court is appropriate not only for a college composition course but also for ANY course which features argumentation and/or critical thinking. Additionally, instructors across the curriculum can use this activity to initiate lively discussions about controversial topics in their content. Examples include: Political Science (Electronic voting machines do/do not improve the voting process.), Health and Wellness (Drinking cow milk is healthy/unhealthy for human beings.), Sociology (Gangs do/do not survive only by exploiting children.), Science (Earth is/is not undergoing global warming) and Education (Competition does/does not inhibit learning.). This activity takes approximately 60 minutes but can easily be modified for shorter or longer time periods.
1. I ask students to brainstorm several controversial debate topics and write them on the board. Common topics such as gun control, abortion, capital punishment, and euthanasia work great, though other controversial topics with less exposure are even better. Consider such topics as paid maternity leave in corporate America , standardized testing in the public schools as a means of advancement, or federal aid for stem cell research.
2. Tell students to pretend they have entered a courtroom and are now lawyers responsible for making their opinions heard on a particular controversial issue.
3. Draw an outline on the board to represent the classroom perimeter, and label each corner of the classroom outline as follows: Strongly Agree, Agree, Disagree, and Strongly Disagree.
4. Announce a controversial statement and tell students to stand in the corner which represents their views on the topic. For example, announce “In the United States, all instruction in schools should be done exclusively in English.” If they agree, they have a choice of two corners based on the strength of their agreement. The same holds true for disagreement.
5. Once all students are in a corner, take on the role of judge and begin the court session by asking questions such as:
- Why are you in the “Strongly Disagree” corner verses just the “Strongly Agree” corner?
- What would you say to people in a different corner to get them to join you in your corner?
- Do you have any personal experience that is shaping your opinion? Share an anecdote.
- What fact or statistic can you present to support your view?
- If you don’t have facts or statistics at hand, where could you find them?
6. Allow students to change corners if their views change. Repeat this activity several times using the topics the students have listed on the board or those that you supply.
7. After several issues have been discussed, ask students to take a seat. Then, in a whole-class discussion, have students synthesize what they learned about effective argumentation. Guide the discussion to elements such as pathos, ethos, and logos; the necessity of research; the presentation of evidence; tone; effective word choice; refutation; etc.
HINTS FOR USING IN THE CLASSROOM: Inform students that they MUST choose a corner. I share the adage, “If you don’t stand for something, you’ll fall for anything” to make this point. To maintain order, I initially give the students this quote attributed to Greek philosopher Zeno of Citium: “We have two ears and but a single mouth in order that we may hear more and speak less.” This encourages students to listen first rather than all speak at once. Briefly discuss ground rules such as “Only one person speaks at a time” and “Do not argue with a PERSON; only argue with his/her views.” Cut off debates that get too heated and switch topics. I recommend limiting debate to no more than 30 minutes so that students do not have too much to synthesize.
EXPANSION POSSIBILITIES: One option for expansion is having students write a brief argument at their desks before entering a corner. Another option is having students in each corner first discuss their topic, constructing a group explanation of their position which becomes their group’s opening statement. A post-debate option is having students write a synthesis of what they learned about effective and ineffective ways to present an argument. This writing prepares them to contribute to the discussion that follows regarding effective argumentation.
OUTCOMES: I implement this activity after a lecture I give on basic skills of argumentation: inductive/deductive reasoning, fallacies, use of evidence, refutation, etc. The mock courtroom experience helps students better understand these skills by using them. Also, this activity clearly shows students what argumentation is and prepares them for writing an effective argumentative essay.
Students have commented positively on this activity both verbally and on end-of-semester evaluations. Many say they appreciate the opportunity to speak freely in class and address their peers. They also claim to remember this activity more than my general lectures because they are actively engaged in it; this claim is substantiated by the fact that when I refer back to the activity as an example later in the semester, students do indeed recall it specifically, often remembering not only what they said but what their peers said. As a bonus, since using this activity I have spent fewer office hours meeting one-on-one with students in an attempt to explain their argumentation assignment; my office hours are now spent more fruitfully with students who are inquiring about the rewriting stage rather than about the prewriting stage of this assignment. I have seen an overall increase in student confidence as they begin this writing assignment and, ultimately, an increase in the rate of successful completion of the argumentation assignment by freshman students.
by Audrey Wick, Faculty, English, Blinn College, TX