The Great Greek Debates

Over the course of this weeklong project, students work in groups to learn about the different types of government in Ancient Greece. They conduct research and do a LOT of critical thinking, and they get to face the challenge – often for the first time! – of having to defend an idea they disagree with. Let’s be real: lots of grown-ups struggle with that.

Grade level: 6th (because that’s where we teach ancient history)

Duration: 1 week (with a little flexibility! it ranges from 5-7 class periods, and you could probably condense it even more if your class periods are longer than ours)

Background: I created this project with a colleague who was filling a maternity leave. The kids loved it. After the teacher he was subbing for returned, we kept doing this activity.

One of the things I really love about this project is that students’ thinking really gets a chance to shine. They are only allowed to use their textbooks and a couple of photocopied sections from books for research, so they can’t just google “pros and cons of tyranny” – they actually have to figure it out for themselves. And they do a ridiculously good job. Their speeches are so, so impressive every year.

If you’re able to confer with each group during the research process, it makes a big difference. Sometimes students just need a push in the right direction – it’s easy for them to write down that a “pro” of tyranny is “decisions get made quickly”, but they often need a push to explain why that’s true of tyranny (just one person, no arguing or politics), and why that would be a benefit to society (can respond quickly in times of war or disaster; things actually get done rather than devolving into infighting or stasis).

Finally, when we do this project, our students are in the midst of a unit-long simulation where they are assigned to a city-state and have a particular role. This made it very easy for us to assign jobs to students.

Instructional plan (with 40-minute periods in mind; your situation may vary)

Day 1: Introduce the project. What is a debate? (Students are usually familiar with presidential debates, and if they paid attention during the 2016 election season they may make comments about how you can insult your opponent, yell at/interrupt them, etc., and that needs to be shut down immediately.) What you want them to get at, essentially, is: A debate is a structured discussion of a question or proposal. People share their opinions and also discuss the benefits and drawbacks of opposing opinions. (The wording is emphatically not important.)

Explain the topic and format of our debates. The question is: What is the best form of government for Greek city-states to adopt? The structure is:

Team 1: Constructive
Team 2: Constructive
Team 1: Rebuttal
Team 2: Rebuttal

In the constructives, each team will make the case for their form of government. What are the benefits of [democracy, tyranny, oligarchy etc.]?  How does our form of government enable our city-state’s success?

In the rebuttals, each team will point out the problems with the opposing form of government, and explain how their own form is superior.

We don’t set time requirements for these speeches. They typically range from 2-7 minutes long.

We also tell students which type of government they’ll be supporting. Because our students are participating in a simulation, we assign them a type of government that their city-state actually used (i.e. Athens gets democracy, Sparta gets oligarchy, Megara has tyranny etc.) I can basically guarantee that kids will complain that Athens gets the “easy” one, or claim that they cannot possibly defend tyranny. This is a good opportunity to talk about the value of arguing for something we don’t necessarily believe. It’s good mental gymnastics, and an opportunity to practice both critical thinking skills and empathy.

If you need to sort out roles, this is the time to do it. Groups of 4-5 students work best for this activity. One student can deliver both speeches, or you can have one student deliver the constructive and another deliver the rebuttal. We also assigned one group member to be the “cross-examiner” – this wasn’t a formal part of the debate, but during the prep periods, that person could ask questions of the opposing team.

Day 2: We start off by giving model constructive speeches. We also introduce the note-taking documents and talk about the importance of note-taking during a debate. While my colleague and I give our speeches, we take notes in the document provided and display them on the board so students can see what we’re writing down in real time. In the past, we’ve had students take notes on the second example constructive, once they’ve seen one of us do it. Here’s my model constructive.

After the model constructives, students start researching and writing their own constructive speeches using the graphic organizer provided. As mentioned earlier, we limit their research materials to the textbook, some other books and photocopies, and our online encyclopedias (Britannica and World Book).

Day 3: Students continue researching and writing. The teacher and I confer with each group, asking what they’ve learned so far, and then encouraging them to dig deeper. So if they’ve discovered that Athens had the Council of 500, ask them: What are the benefits of having many citizens participate in governing? What are the drawbacks? The goal is to get them to really think through their ideas and get to the next level. Don’t let them get away with just saying “giving people a voice is a good thing” – well, why? (Because citizens feel heard and won’t rebel against the government? Because you get to hear many different ideas and so are more likely to pick a good one? Because through extensive discussion you’re able to fine-tune your policies? etc.) For every “pro” they list, they need to have at least two or three sentences of explanation.

Towards the end of class, students should be writing their speeches. They can use the format of the graphic organizer to keep things in order. Remind them to use transitions between ideas.

Day 4: Give students a few minutes to wrap up preparation and practice giving their constructive speech. Teams deliver their speeches and take notes on the opposing team’s speech. We usually end up with six teams and three debates.

Day 5: Finish up constructives if necessary. Then deliver model rebuttals and show students how the notes you took on the opposing team’s constructive allowed you to build your rebuttal. Students should spend the rest of this period writing their rebuttals. For the most part, they won’t need to do research here – it’s ALL thinking. They should look at the other team’s “pros” and figure out how to turn them around. (Yeah it might sound good to have everyone share their ideas, but what if there’s an attack and you just need to make a quick decision? What if some people have bad ideas? What if you can’t get everyone to come to an agreement?) Again, conferencing with groups is a good idea here.

Day 6: Give students a few minutes to wrap up preparation. Teams deliver their rebuttals. Teacher-judges deliberate and select the winner of each debate. We also usually give awards for “best speaker” – maybe just one or two per class.

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