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Creative possibilities impact you as you arrive in Mr. Fout’s sixth-grade Social Science class. His carefully curated walls draw the eye. Each display focuses on a different part of the globe and a different theme ready to be explored. His classroom is a welcoming environment that encourages deep thought and reflection.
One method Mr. Fout recently used to challenge students to broaden their ideas on real-world issues was a debate. His students prepared for five class periods. That’s ten full hours of research, development, and strategy. The discussion focused on NAFTA, the North American Free Trade Agreement, a wonderfully relevant and controversial topic. Mr. Fout divided students into two teams: a pro-NAFTA and an anti-NAFTA side. They were expected to work together to research the topic, develop their arguments, and present them intelligently and concisely in front of the class. Each member of the group was responsible for one of several key components of the debate: an opening statement, a presentation of the argument, a rebuttal, and, finally, a closing statement.
The exercise showed just how immersed these students were in the topic, demonstrating impressive understanding of the subject and the ability to think on their feet. They were expected to think critically about NAFTA, take notes during the presentations, and craft appropriate rebuttals during a brief recess.
Once each side had the opportunity to present their evidence and address any counter arguments, Mr. Fout facilitated a period of self-assessment and reflection. During this time, he asked that students take in all the information they learned during the debate and formulate their own opinions on the subject. He posed some questions: Did their opinions change from those on the side they represented? Did they feel like they fully understood the other side of the argument? Were their opinions maybe a little biased? Does competition lend itself to complete understanding of a topic, or should more research be done?
At the end of it all, Mr. Fout congratulated the students on their hard work and let them know they should be proud of themselves for their dedication to the debate. It was an impressive display of knowledge and respect for one another. The classroom was a safe space for the students to debate a controversial topic and enlighten one another about each side of an argument.
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