Lesson Plan: Introducing Claims and Evidence Debate-o-Rama Style
When I introduce a new concept to my students, I try my hardest to spare both them and myself the kind of lecturing that new concepts beg for. Writing and reading are skills you learn by doing, not hearing about, so, rather than talk at my students for an hour, I opt to subject them to an exercise in analyzing the inane to get a feel for how claims and evidence work together to support arguments.
If we're going to talk about arguments, we need a debate to wade into. Enter Good Mythical Morning's Debate-o-Rama series. Featuring debates as timeless and urgent as cats vs. dogs and pancakes vs. waffles, the series presents a variety of arguments, all supported by claims and evidence (sometimes of dubious quality, which is also a teaching moment). I like these videos because they center around accessible issues (no need to explain the ins and outs of American fiscal policy when you're debating hot dogs vs. hamburgers) and because they offer an opportunity to have some fun while we learn. Writing classes are often so quick to get so politically self-serious: I don't need to get anyone's hackles up to teach them about argument structure.
As an added bonus, I can't count the number of times that the Good Mythical Morning Debate-o-Rama day has popped up on my evaluations as a highlight of the semester for my students. Often, students that haven't been very engaged perk up when their teacher puts Rhett and Link on the screen. It disarms them, and it sets them up to learn in a way that they remember even at the end of the semester.
A quick search on YouTube will reveal a handful of Debate-o-Rama topics—pick whichever one you like and cue it up before class.
To begin, I do like to give students a brief explanation of claims and evidence:
A claim is the point you're trying to make
Evidence is what you use to show how you know your point is true
Then I tell them that we're going to look at how claims and evidence work in a real debate. I warn them that things could get pretty heated and encourage them to set their personal feelings aside for the sake of civil discussion. Then I dim the lights, and we watch two grown men argue about whether pie or cake is better.
These videos are set up in a format that facilitates class discussion. There are opening statements, cross examinations, rebuttals, and closing statements by both parties, providing convenient segments and stopping points.
Typically, I will play through one segment, pause, and then ask the class to help me to identify any claims or evidence that were presented in the segment we just watched. I record their responses on the board, diagramming the two sides of the debate on opposite sides of the board.
As we build the two sides of the debate on the board, we also discuss the ways in which the two sides challenge claims and evidence from their opponents. By recording the claims the debaters make, the evidence they provide, and the ways in which they respond to the other side, my students begin to develop some familiarity with the connections between claims and evidence and the vulnerabilities of weak connections. I could explain all that to them, but seeing it all work firsthand does the job too.
The main goal here is to give students some practice identifying and distinguishing claims and evidence and to help them to develop a feel for how claims and evidence work together in building arguments. Depending on how talkative my class is, that's all we can accomplish in a class period, and that's okay with me. There are, however, some options for varying the activity.
Option 1: Have students analyze the debate in teams
When I have had classes that were less eager to participate in large group discussions, I have split the class down the middle and given each have the responsibility to outline the arguments on their own before we discuss them as a class. Then, instead of trying to pull claims and evidence out of them in the moment, I just ask the two teams to share their outlines, which we can then discuss together. This can be a time-saving strategy since students will be outlining the debate initially on their own, obviating the need for frequent stopping, discussing, and restarting.
Option 2: Have students consider the merits of the arguments
Obviously, the issues as stake in the the Debate-o-Rama videos are silly, but that makes it easier for students to publicly take sides. After outlining and discussing the two sides of the debate, I ask students to decide which side they are most persuaded by and why. This moves beyond merely identifying the parts of each argument towards an evaluation of the arguments' relative effectiveness. Students get the opportunity to discuss the ways in which claims and evidence can be presented and linked in persuasive ways and encourages them to start to think about how there's more to presenting a convincing argument that just picking the "right" side.
Option 3: Challenge students to do better
One semester, after watching the Cake vs. Pie debate, my students surprised me by asking if they could stage their own debate on the same topic during the next class. If my students want to plan a lesson, I'm not going to stop them, so we held a debate ourselves. I asked students to go home and think about the claims they saw in the video and what claims they would make. Then, of course, I encouraged them to think about the kinds of evidence that would support their claims persuasively.
The following class period, we held the debate, following the format in the videos. Student teams had prepared their arguments in advance, but they had to respond to the other teams' claims on the fly, giving them some practice understanding and responding to challenging claims as they arose, sometimes modifying their own arguments as they went.
I served as audience-judge. In the end, I informed both teams that the correct answer to the cake vs. pie debate was ice cream but acknowledged that the cake team, while small in number, had offered more convincing claims and evidence. (A couple of years later, a student from that class emailed me to ask for a letter of recommendation. He also took the opportunity to inform my that my judgment was wrong and that pie was and would always be the superior dessert. A class period for the history books.)
I suppose this is less a formal lesson plan and more a description of a resource that has led me to some useful and enjoyable class sessions. Use them as a starting point, adapting them to your own needs and teaching style.
Of course these debates simplify the rhetorical process. It's not always one side against another. We don't want people getting the idea that rhetoric is about adversarial relationships. There are real issues in the world that need to be addressed. The arguments presented in the videos aren't exactly up to "academic standards." The list could go on.
But I guess that's why we don't teach writing in a single class session. There's time for nuance and refinement later in the semester. Before subjecting students to the full burden of academic seriousness, why not hook them with a little unexpected fun and firsthand experience. Paying careful attention to silly arguments gives students a sense of the mechanics of argument just as much as it gives them a feel for what not to do in their own writing. Besides, how much learning is really going on when our students think (as they so often do) that we're playing a game of guess-the-teacher's-politics? Better in my book to lower the stakes and give my students some space to learn by playing with the basics of claims and evidence.