Each year, the state of Connecticut, through the Connecticut Department of Education’s Law Related Education Program, sponsors a Young People’s Debate Program. The tournament, for middle school students, begins in the Fall of each year with a workshop for interested teachers and coaches and culminates with the final round some time in May.
One issue is chosen for debate each year. It is researched throughout the state by competing schools. The topic remains the same for the whole year and students debate both sides of the issue during the various competitions. The issue chosen each year is of interest to teenagers and relates to their lives.
The purpose of this unit is twofold. First, it will explore several landmark Supreme Court cases related to teenagers, and second it will explain the basic rules of debate as well as the format followed by the state in preparation for the competition.
Although the topic for each year’s tournament is not announced until September, the cases chosen for this unit are related to the rights of teenagers and in that respect they may very well be related to future topics for the state debate tournament. They are also important because they relate to the lives of all students and are excellent topics for classroom debates.
The unit is designed primarily for the middle school level although the rules for high school debate are similar and the unit can be used at any level. The two primary differences between middle school and high school debate are the time limits for speakers and the fact that at the high school evidence must be produced upon the request of the other team.
Videotapes of the middle school state championship debates for 1987 and 1988 are available through the Yale New Haven Teacher’s Institute. The 1987 Championship debate was between Amity Junior High School and Bethel Middle School. The question argued was mandatory drug testing. The 1988 championship debate was between Darien Junior High School and Jackie Robinson Middle School in New Haven. The topic dealt with the question of whether or not student publications should be protected from censorship by the 1st Amendment. This topic has been chosen as the focal point of this unit. The format for the debate tournament as well as the responsibilities of each speaker will be presented through the censorship topic in the second part of the unit.
Even if a school does not wish to enter the state competition, the use of debate will stimulate students to want to learn. Education, in order to be successful, must be an active process. Unless students have a role to play in learning, little of the material presented is retained or more importantly, understood. Students should not be expected to just listen and memorize a litany of facts and definitions. While memory skills are important, memorizing unconnected facts in isolation has no value.
In the same way that a science lab is used to provide “hands on” activities in science, forensic activities of debate offer students an opportunity to deal with “real world” questions in settings that resemble Congress or the courtroom. In the science lab, as in debate, students are required to identify a problem, find causes, research possible solutions, determine the best solution, and plan a means of implementing the best solution. This process, set forth by John Dewey, allows for education that is useful and which fosters higher level learning skills.
Debate also provides students with an opportunity to do research, to write speeches, to cross examine, to speak before a group, to understand and appreciate opposing viewpoints, to summarize, to explore our court system, to work as a team, and to learn that what is presented in the classroom has relevancy in the real world. The idea that students can share knowledge and learn from one another is one which is essential and long overdue.