Tips for Watching Debates

Showing political debates in a public speaking course provides real life learning for students. Prepare your students though!

Watching debates in a public speaking class provides ample learning opportunities. Students can watch well-prepared, practiced speakers. You can discuss debate strategies and verbal/ nonverbal skills with students. Almost every idea in a public speaking class? – part of the presidential debates.

But you know, high school students can vote, or are almost of age to vote. Most students have intense opinions on the political process and candidates. That isn’t a problem until behavior turns nasty or hijacks the lesson. Not knowing how to properly convey feelings and having intense emotions is part of the age group. All of this can lead to a messy lesson, one where students didn’t learn from watching the debate.

I’ve shown debates numerous times in a public speaking course. Every experience varies, but I have found what works most of the time to ensure students learn authentic speech concepts. Here are my tips for watching debates with public speaking students.

Don’t show all of the debate.

Plan segments to show before class. (I complete this lesson plan at night). I watch the debate, noting where I think students will have the best learning opportunities. I look for ideas such as anaphora, parallelism, and tricolon.

The debates are typically on news websites. I time mark certain learning opportunities and create a quick handout for student notes. Other times, I tell students to find a certain number of verbal and nonverbal positive/ negative examples (or whatever forensic term we’re studying).

And? Show both parties’ debates. It’s only fair.

Plan, plan, plan.

Plan how to approach your students. You know your students. Mark a few ideas of where potential problems could exist. Has a student vocalized intense feelings about a topic? Warn students ahead of time of what they will see – either as a class, or as individuals. It may be odd to watch a debate and not discuss the politics, but students should learn that the rhetoric skills they see influence those ideas. Encourage them to see that debates have numerous levels, and this is simply one of them.

Also plan the guidelines that will help your students. Classes are different. I can specifically recall classes that if I said, we’ll be kind to each other and respect political differences,  that is would absolutely happen. Other classes, I needed to make notes for myself where I should sit. I typed up behavior guidelines for students to reference – for me to note during viewing. When in doubt, be proactive.

Political debates can serve as useful learning tools, especially in a public speaking course with secondary students. Teachers should be prepared and explain guidelines though. Read how to plan.

Explain, explain, and explain expectations. 

Once you’ve decided what to show, explain what they will see. Explain your expectations for their conversations. Explain where their focus should be. (Verbal skills? A particular nonverbal component?) Prepping students for watching a political debate smooths the lesson.

Remind students where they develop political ideals from – life experiences, gender, religion, and on. Students will contribute to this discussion, and you can lead them to realize that no two people have the exactly the same political beliefs. Build empathy, and then you can allow a brief discussion of politics.

Allow students to discuss politics.

After a few experiences showing debates, I kept fifteen minutes from the end of class for political discussion. That way, I met the objectives of my lessons – analyzing the presentation and not the content – and students knew they would have a chance to speak later.

Finally, force students to ground their arguments in research. If a topic wasn’t going away, I encouraged students to find research and bring it to the next class period. This also gave me a chance to discuss primary and secondary sources.

Honestly, I’ve started to show debates to some classes and had to stop. The heckling and name calling bordered on bullying, and it was an unsafe environment. Watching debates requires students to behave, and if students won’t handle hearing different opinions, then we’ll study something else. (Perhaps interpersonal communication).

That happens rarely because I explain to students that I will stop showing the debates, and they understand that learning from real life is the best way to spend a class period. Students feel passionate about certain subjects. This is wonderful! As teachers, we need to maneuver that energy into positive speech. Both ideas belong in a public speaking course. I simply choose to focus on the speaking portions more than the content.

Watching debates entertains students, and it can fit it most public speaking lesson plans.

I wrote this as an American teacher. Teachers from other countries, do you share similar experiences? I’m interested to hear them!

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