View Lessons by Category > Class Discussions & Debates > History
(Modern World): One of my favorite lessons during my two years at [school] was the "Meeting of the Minds" activity in Modern World History. We spent the first semester of the school year studying world history from the 1500s to the French Revolution. During this time, we learned about several important world leaders that greatly affected history. In "The Meeting of the Minds" each student was assigned a different political figure, ranging from Akbar the Great of the Mughal Empire to King William and Queen Mary of England. Everyone showed up to class that day dressed up as their political figure and was ready to have a discussion about the world from the character's point of view. Having researched our political figures for days, we all came to class prepared to debate and discuss the main conflicts of the Early Modern Period. It was so interesting to learn about all of the different opinions of each leader, and to see what issues were constant across the global community. This activity allowed me to truly connect all of the topics that we learned about from different empires onto a global scale and gave me a great perspective into the lives of people living during the time period. Interacting with each political figure allowed me to gain a greater understanding of the individual figures as well as the main issues surrounding the empire. This activity was so helpful to learn about the global issues of the Early Modern Period, and it was one of my favorite learning experiences at [school].
In 7th grade at [school] we did a debate project in History that made me excited to come to school every day. The debate was over the American Revolution and I played the part of an actual patriot from that time period. We researched our person at home the night before the first debate, and during the actual debate, we tried to act like our character; for example, my person was a priest so I acted very collected and religious. our arguments were based off of a list of debate topics our teacher gave us, so our research had specific focus. The class was divided among three sides: Patriots, Neutralists, and Loyalists. We would walk into class with our handmade, old-fashioned name tags and sit down in our section of the room. I burned the edges of my name tag to make it appear older. We debated on the specific topics and would all vote at the end to see who won. of course, all the patriots would vote for the act that supported the patriotic view and all the loyalist voted for the loyalist solution, so each side essentially tried to convince the neutralists. There was strategy to the debates, too, making it them even more enticing. Each person from each team could only speak once and could not speak again until everyone else had spoken. If one person really wanted to say something but had already spoken, they could write it down and have someone else from their team say it when they go up. It was truly a team effort! Debaters could make shout outs, though, which made the debates heated and funny. The creativity and contradictions each person brought to their speeches made the debates even funnier! After each debate, each team would get a certain number of points that the members could excitedly write on their name tags. Also, each team could choose certain punishments from that time period for the other team using points, making the debates even more interactive.

Researching every night wasn't as boring and didn't make me anxious as it usually is for projects. It was each student’s choice to research however little or much they wanted. It was very independent. By the last few debates, I barely had to do any research because I knew so much about the time period and well getting fully delved into the debates! I still remember how fun those debates were and wanted them to never stop; furthermore, I learned much about the American revolution, too, and felt like I was actually an American politician.
(European): During Fall Term I had a class called 2 Empires, in which we talked about two great powers, Germany and Britain, during World War 1. One of the activities we did in class consisted of all the girls in the class dividing into groups, and each group in turn picked a country like Britain, Germany, France, Austria-Hungary, and Russia. Each country had to do some research on the country, the motives they were going into war, and other interesting facts. We also had to write a peace proposal in order to try to stop the war. During that time, we became the leaders of our countries and we were in charge to prevent war. After doing all the research we gathered for a peace agreement and we tried to make treaties with other countries and try to stop the war. These discussions sometimes took place outside of class hours so as to obtain our goal; to stop the war. In the end we failed to do so, but we learned a lot in the process and it was a very interesting project that motivated us to learn more about our country as well as others.
(Ancient): One experience in school that has been particularly memorable to me was in a history class last year as a freshman about the history of the calendar. The class was called "The Dawn of Time" and I was immediately drawn to it. We discussed everything about time, from the ideas and inventions of Rome and Greece, to the "modern day calendars" of the Mayans and Aztecs. One of our class assignments was to prepare an in-class debate about the Gregorian Calendar Reform and to base it around that time period, so that we were not debating as present day people, but instead as the people of that time period. We had done debates before in the class, where most dressed up in costume, which, while both entertaining and educational, was not nearly as exciting as this debate. One side argued for the reform to happen, while the other side wanted to keep the "current" calendar in place. Each side had about six or seven students on it and everybody worked wonderfully together. Everyone the class was really enthusiastic about this assignment and fought passionately for their respective sides. It was also a challenging assignment because some of the points that were valuable to arguing for and against the reform had occurred after the time period the debate was set in, making it a little harder to collect enough concrete evidence to support our cases. I was on the side arguing against the calendar reform and my group argued many valid points, such as that calendar reform would take years to be put into full action and that conflicts between the Church was surely cause mayhem amongst the people. The other side argued well also, and brought up good points, all of which were based off of the fact that the "current calendar" in place was not accurate enough, which was also causing problems throughout the countries following the calendar. Even though everyone on both sides was given two designated main ideas, my classmates could not wait to jump up and argue something (respectively) with another classmate, and the new ideas that would stem from that argument were fascinating and got everybody thinking differently. I found myself so enthralled in our debate that what was usually a rather lengthy class period flew by. In class debates are one of my favorite things in a class and I believe they give students the chance to really hear another point of view and explore the ideas and arguments that surround a specific class topic. Debates also motivated me to ask "why" or "how" when discussing particular topics and to be open to different perspectives others had on the subject. In general, I think debates in the classroom are one of the most helpful tools when studying any type of history.
(American) After reading the Declaration of Independence for homework, we had the whole class period to discuss whether we thought the document was liberal or conservative, or both, and why. My class had people of many different backgrounds, politically, economically and socially, so everyone had different opinions. This lesson was especially memorable to me because the discussion style made everyone speak their opinion, and forced others to pay attention. Due to the fact that we were at one table, nobody had their computers out, was texting, or in general, was otherwise occupied instead of paying attention to the discussion. It was very engaging, and while my teacher would step in if he wanted to make a point, he let us lead the discussion by ourselves and find out knowledge on our own, which was more satisfying than him relaying information to us. Overall, this discussion not only engaged everyone, but gave people the confidence to voice their thoughts and defend them against others’ opinions, a sometimes difficult thing to do if one attends a co-ed school.
One of the most enjoyable and educational parts of this class is the “Harknesses”…I believe that the Harkness discussions we have allow us to learn on our own more, because students ask each other questions. The [discussions] also give us the chance to learn how to argue a point and speak politely to each other. Finally, I think that Harknesses give us the chance to assert ourselves in a conversation and learn how to talk about history instead of simply recite back whatever the textbook or our teacher lectures us about. Harknesses are sometimes announced and sometimes unannounced (“pop”). Pop Harknesses are especially educational because they force us to think about a topic that we have not really studied, but instead very recently read about. This forces us to really make sure we learn as we read and helps us become more independent in our learning, which I am sure will help us later in life… Sometimes, after a Harkness…even after class, groups of us will continue to talk about the discussion because we get so interested in each other’s opinions!
(Middle Eastern) In teaching a semester-length elective on the History of the Middle East to sophomore girls last spring, I gave my students a long-term assignment to write a letter of advice the Secretary of State Hillary Clinton regarding what changes the US should make in its Middle East policies in the wake of the death of Osama bin Laden and the outbreak of the "Arab Spring." They were to write this letter from the vantage point of being a foreign minister from one of the major countries within the Middle East. Prior to actually writing their individual letters, the girls had to "attend" a conference of foreign ministers from all the Middle East countries they represented and negotiate with each other-to the extent that they could-to come up with a series of resolutions regarding how (or whether) they wanted US foreign policy toward their region of the world to change. The day the mock conference was scheduled, I employed a pair of senior students well-versed in our Model UN program's diplomatic conference procedures to run the conference, so that I would be able to be a mere observer. Among the 11 girls, six countries were represented (all but one of the countries had two representatives, so that only one of my students was alone in representing a country; that way, all but one of the girls had a "fellow diplomat" as a team member/partner. The girls were to represent their country's perspective as realistically as they were able, and try to negotiate (or not) in a fashion they imagined that representatives from those countries would act (the countries included Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Israel). They had a 50 minute period in which to present their views, negotiate, and decide on any resolutions they might propose. The exercise was meant to get them thinking about the complexities of the contemporary Middle East, how the countries might or might not co-operate at a moment of great turmoil in the Middle East, and give the girls practice in acting and speaking from the viewpoint of a professional diplomat representing her country's views to people not from her own country.

During the course of the exercise, as the students interacted with each other and with the seniors who ran and moderated the conference, the girls seemed intensely focused, serious, realistic and knowledgeable. Complexities of viewpoint emerged quickly, nationalistic and religious posturings appeared, statements were thrown down, then amended. During a "break" in the "conference proceedings," side-conferences between nations quietly took place. When the conference resumed for its "second negotiating session," alliances had clearly (and appropriately) been forged, deals had been made. By the end of class, with the seniors nodding enthusiastically, the sophomores were able to come together to support two resolutions, with only two of the nations (Syria and Iran) abstaining.
(American): In this assignment, each student assumes the role of a modern-day historian discussing the legacy of John Brown. John Brown’s activities in "Bleeding Kansas" and his subsequent raid in Harper’s Ferry loomed large in the events leading up to the Civil War. Yet, when we read about him in standard textbooks, though chronicled, the full power and impact of Brown’s actions fail to come through. At the time, to many people, Brown’s Harper’s Ferry raid was an event like the 9/11 Attacks: it created widespread fear and reaction. To many people Brown was a villain, the ultimate product of decades of extreme abolitionist activity. To others, Brown was a hero, the ultimate martyr who was willing to give his life for the cause of humanity. In this debate each student forms an opinion about Brown and his historical legacy.

This lesson works well for girls in particular because they are required to do substantial written preparation, crafting them into “talking points” prior to the oral component. They are directed to specific repositories of quality primary and secondary source material, including the Library of Congress and Furman University’s Secession Era Editorials Project. Listed below are the written requirements:

After reading the background essay in the textbook and other sources (see suggestions below- don’t reinvent the wheel) - write a list of 8-10 main points you could make about Brown. (they don’t have to all support your position. This is to get your ideas organized). Cite supporting evidence, being as specific as possible. Your talking points MUST include ample supporting evidence drawn from a range of appropriate sources.

Write a paragraph (or two) which serves to frame your interpretation of Brown.
Write 3-5 provocative questions to prompt discussion during the Roundtable.
Include proper footnotes and bibliography in Chicago format.
Research should reflect a wide variety and number of primary and secondary sources.

Students are evaluated in equal measure between the quality of their written preparation and the level and quality of their oral participation. The substantial written preparation, produced as argument points helps students find their voice and feel confident that they have something substantive to contribute in an articulate manner. During the roundtable discussion, the teacher serves only as moderator, calling on students and keeping track to ensure that everyone participates substantively.

I have been doing this assignment with my students for the past 5 years and it has always proved to be a highlight of the semester. Students are often surprised that there is such a wide range of viewpoints expressed. Many quickly see the notion that one man’s freedom fighter is another’s terrorist. They full grasp the powerful impact of this event in escalating the tension which ultimately culminated in the Civil War. Rarely do I ever have to prompt them to raise an issue or consider a particular angle, because their discussions inevitably are so free ranging. Most of all, regardless of their ability, if they have prepared well in advance, all students can do well on this assignment. When I call time at the end of class, they invariably beg to keep on going. To me that’s the mark of an engaged group.
(American): This year (10th grade) in U.S. History, we do a project of sorts every so often called Seminar. The seminar is a partially individual exercise and partially a group exercise. The class reads a chapter out of a book called After the Fact, which is a collection of analytical essays about the historic significance of events. The book is very detailed and extremely interesting, exploring every detail of the historic event and giving insight into the bigger meaning. Reading the chapter, analyzing the essay, and taking our own general notes are done on our own time. When we come to the designated seminar class, we sit in a circle and discuss the chapter and the significance of the things mentioned. There are two discussion leaders who are meant to propose prompts for discussion. I feel that this is a very effective technique for learning and I get a lot out of it. It differs from sitting around for hours at a time memorizing facts from a textbook, and I believe that variety is vital for learning effectively.
(American): When I was in my 8th grade American History class, we spent a lot of time staying engaged with dates and more specific details. Of course, it was more in depth throughout the year, but we covered less time. That was probably my hardest class that year, and I had been working really hard. However, in that class, we did many debates second semester. For example, one debate was of the southern states' secession from the United States. Another was about the question of whether Andrew Jackson was a man of the people or a tyrant. When preparing my side, regardless of whether it was the pro or con side, I learned a lot about debate and government. I liked applying my knowledge to argument and that really motivated me in history. In fact, it motivated me to the point that I felt a desire to take the AP level history classes because I knew I would learn in a different way and be able to argue all that I process through intensive reading in my writing. The debates made me want to be involved in government and thus encouraged me to participate in government-related extra-curriculars. That was very exciting for me, especially since it encouraged my public speaking skills. Ever since, I have enjoyed debating historical topics along with other areas.