Educator Resource: Reflection & Debate Activities for English Class

A group of middle school students sitting at a long table engaged in learning activities.
Renee Scherer, Middle School English Specialist

Try This: Reflect, Debate, & Summarize

"Try This" is a series of blog posts geared towards educators that features smart but simple tips from KLS teachers. Our hope is that these ideas are something you can implement in your own classroom right away. We’d love to hear how it goes. Leave a comment or tag us on social media @khanlabschool if you try any of these strategies! 

At KLS, our Middle School English students are wrapping up Module 1, which is focused on “Colonized Experiences: Life Writing.” We explored the essential question, “How have we recorded and retold stories about colonized experiences?” as part of our shared focus with Middle School History on early colonization efforts in the Americas.

Module Background & Context

Students began this Module already considering some big questions, including working together to define “colonization,” and to consider whose experiences are usually told and retold about colonization and why. As a class, we confirmed that "Life Writing"—the umbrella term for a wide range of autobiographical works including memoirs, biographies, journals and diaries, travelogues, personal letters, etc.—is an essential resource for trying to understand and even to recover perspectives that are otherwise too often not shared with younger students or left for the dustbin altogether. 

We turned to a fictional imagining of a life narrative to think about Spanish colonization of the Americas through a two-chapter excerpt from Laila Lalami’s The Moor’s Account (2014), which presents the fictional memoir of the very real historical figure of Mustafa Azemmouri (“Estebanico”). In both Lalami’s novel and our own history, this figure was enslaved, taken from his native Morocco, and accompanied his Spanish enslavers on the disastrously ill-fated Narváez expedition. Setting out from Spain in 1527 to establish settlements in Florida and search for gold and other resources in the region, the expedition led by Pánfilo de Narváez initially had about 600 members. All but four would perish from the difficult conditions, hostile encounters, and extreme weather they would face. Those four, though, would eventually reconnect with a different Spanish group in 1536 after years of wandering and tribulations. The tiny group of survivors included the enslaved Mustafa Azemmouri, making him the first known black, African, and likely the first Muslim (though officially a Catholic convert) explorer of North America. 

Reflect: Pre-reading Check-in Surveys

As a pre-reading exercise for our first work related to Spanish colonization, students first did individual check-in surveys considering six potentially contentious statements about colonization, autobiographical writings, and identities in and of the Americas. The results were interesting!

A set of bar graphs displaying varied responses to six statements from English class.

This kind of reflection is frequent for us as we add readings during our Module. Seeing how thoughts shift or solidify as we add chapters, poems, and novels really shows that students are engaging with the material and connecting them thematically and to our essential questions. 

Download: Pre-reading Check-in Activity Template

Debate: In-class Oracy Challenge

As an in-class oracy challenge, our students continued working with those six contentious statements: we divided into groups, and each group selected just one of the statements to become the center of a sustained, 15-minute small group debate and discussion.

This format allows for a low-pressure context for students to actively participate aloud while also encouraging them to seek academic phrasing, clear organization, and keen evaluation of evidence and argument just as they would for a prolonged, formal debate. Students brainstormed methods for keeping their conversations going and gave each other advice about how to understand perspectives that don’t match their own, then we used a responsive classroom chime to signal the beginning of their oracy challenge and again to signal the end. They had a great time!

It was wonderful to see students (politely) push each other to be on-topic, find strong arguments, and react earnestly to the statements.

Download: In-class Oracy Challenge Directions

Summarize: Slide Deck Reflections

After our end-of-challenge chime, students then worked with the same group to prepare short slide decks that summarized the results of their group’s discussion. They included a slide each showing: 

  • Which term(s) seemed most up for debate from their statement

  • What possible arguments supporting the statement they had named

  • What possible arguments against the statement they had named

  • And, when possible, what consensus their group arrived at 

This extra step of reflection is great practice of and accountability for the oracy challenge, and gives everyone a subtle extra chance to share, to rephrase an idea, or practice restating someone else’s ideas in their own words. They also really enjoy seeing how other groups tackled their selected statements—arguing about how to define terms (“true,” “colonization,” and “American” were especially pointed terms for these groups) is an especially interesting share-out for groups.

Screenshot of the first slide of a slide deck template: "Debate Discussion Presentation"

View below for sample slide decks for this activity.

 

Sample Student Slide Decks

Download: Sample Slide Deck 1

Download: Sample Slide Deck 2

Download: Sample Slide Deck 3

Students enjoy the energy of these share-outs, and they also benefit from the callback to our essential question: being reminded that we can fundamentally, very reasonably disagree even about how to define the words we’re using affirms the importance of our task as readers, writers, and explorers of language in our English classroom. 

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