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TNTP Re-imagine Teaching
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If you’ve read 2014 Fishman Prize winner Laura Strait’s essay, “Room for Debate,” you know debate day looms large on the calendar for her students and their families in Oakland, California. It’s a capstone assignment that blends reading, writing, speaking and critical analysis into an authentic opportunity for students to show off their rhetorical (and historical) chops for their loved ones. 

Recently, almost a year after reading about the big event, I finally had a front-row seat as a guest judge for her class’s debate over the American Revolution. 

I watched as Laura’s second floor classroom transformed from a blended learning nerve center into an impromptu auditorium where students, dressed to the nines for the occasion, assembled behind fiercely decorated podiums. Alongside Laura’s principal and former principal, I scored two debate teams on a range of categories, including clarity of reasoning, use of textual evidence, emotional storytelling and sportsmanship. 

This wasn’t my first time meeting this group of students. Back in October, I visited Laura’s classroom to give a guest presentation about journalism. That early in the school year, students were still getting accustomed to Laura’s high expectations for teamwork and academic discipline; many were still building their confidence speaking and writing in English. But just a few months later, that same group of bashful students transformed into eager bands of Patriots and Loyalists.

For nearly an hour, teams took turns debating the American Revolution in exhaustive detail. On the sidelines, an audience of parents and siblings watched, awestruck, as students launched into passionate monologues, pounding the table as they spoke to controversial aspects of the war, from political leadership and military tactics to taxation and trade policy.

Did I mention these students are fourth graders?

At a time when critics of higher standards worry about what’s too hard for students, these kids were delivering arguments that showed a profound understanding of the Revolution from multiple perspectives—George Washington as war hero and George Washington as cunning rebel. Empowered by Laura’s high expectations (and sentence starters), students who’d been struggling to speak English confidently at the beginning of the year were now debating with more nuance, rigor and respect than some of our leaders in Congress demonstrate on a good day. 

Just as amazing was the pride and astonishment on the parents’ faces as they watched their children perform—a testament to the profound sense of community Laura had cultivated in her classroom.

When we tallied up our score cards, the debate ended in a tie. But it was a win for both sides. Parents stayed afterward for refreshments, congratulating their students and snapping pictures. After several visits to Laura’s classroom this year, I’ve wondered what aspects of her classroom practice would be useful for other teachers making the leap to higher standards. A few thoughts come to mind:

  • Don’t be afraid when students struggle. Laura doesn’t lower her expectations when her students stumble. Instead, she makes sure they all have the support they need, regardless of where they started. 
  • Demonstrating mastery is worthy of celebration. Laura’s great debate is a unit assessment disguised as a special performance. After weeks of preparation, her students are eager to demonstrate the fruits of their hard work—and they always rise to the challenge.  
  • Get students and parents talking about academics. Laura prepares her students to discuss academic progress with their parents in very specific terms, and by inviting parents into the classroom, she gives families an opportunity to see academic rigor in action.     

At Laura’s school, it’s clear that high standards are nothing to be afraid of—they’re to be embraced with open arms. Seeing is believing, and Laura’s class convinced me that California teachers, students and parents are up for the challenge of higher academic standards in all schools. This isn’t to say it’ll be easy. Anyone who’s seen Laura at the end of a long school day knows how much hard work goes into making a unit like this possible. But it’s also clear that with passion and leadership, what seems impossible can become inevitable—kind of like the American Revolution itself.