Thursday, November 19, 2009

Debates... and homoerotic amusement.

This week my American Culture students have completed their final projects for second semester--a debate in English on one of four current controversial topics in America: same-sex marriage, affirmative action, standardized education, and health care reform. They've been researching their topics in groups of three or four for a couple months and preparing for the debates. Part of what I HOPED they would learn was the spirit of American discourse--the ability to argue ideas freely and fiercely, but then go back to being friends again later.

Trouble is, Korean students are both too competitive AND too cooperative for assignments like this. They hate working in groups because they think it'll make their individual grade go down (the worst students refuse to participate in the project and just study individually for the test and end up with the same grade as their group members having put in no work--you have to design group projects to work against this tendency), but at the same time, once you get them to work together, they don't want to compete in teams. My co-teacher and I have worked all year to get these kids to value cooperative learning and group projects. So now they do. Great! However, it caused one kind of unexpected problem.

About half of our students worked WITH their opposing team to script the whole debate, including points-of-information (POIs are moments where you interject a question or a point into the other team's assertions to get their response) and counter-arguments. It wasn't bad, it was just... not a debate.

Overall, though, they did a great job. And they were (rightfully) very proud of themselves for this accomplishment. It's not easy to have a debate in your native language, let alone in in a foreign language. Especially in a culture where open conflict is kind of considered rude. I'm very proud of them.


In my conversation classes, William and I have been grading our final projects--a powerpoint presentation for the first graders and a mock trial for the second graders. So far, the powerpoint presentations have been ok--great powerpoints, not so great on the presentation skills. The mock trials, however, have been hilarious. The kids are putting students at school on trial for possible school infractions (cheating and bullying) and have made evidence and played witnesses and lawyers as they try to convince their peers of a classmate's guilt or innocence.

The funniest moment was when a young man in the Chinese major class who was playing the roommate of the defendant (accused of cheating) was being cross examined:

Lawyer: Please describe your relationship with the defendant.
Witness: We are roommates.
Lawyer: Are you close?
Witness: Sure. We sleep together. (The whole class starts to chuckle) And we... take a shower together! (Everyone bursts into laughter)

Thing is, I don't think the kid understood what that sounds like. In the dorms, they have locker-room style showers, and he probably meant that they sleep in the same room, but you know... when your language skills are imperfect... it just sounds funny.

Some days, I love my job.


  1. Are there any books on teaching debate that you would recommend or found helpful? I've been teaching a debate class to our highest level students once a week and it's been difficult finding ways to encourage the students to question one another about differing opinions. (When they have differing opinions!)

    It's hilarious to see that they cooperated together to script the final product!

  2. The cooperation aspect was funny. :-) Neither I, nor my co-teacher, expected that one!

    Although I don't use it, because I don't teach a debate class, I found this at Kyobo: Discover Debate, by Michael Lubetsky, et al. I would use it for a beginning debate class in upper-elementary to first year high school class, depending on the level of the students and heavily supplemented with examples of fine rhetoric appropriate to the level of the students' reading. I also picked up Pros and Cons: A Debater's Handbook by Trevor Sather and have used it in my English teachers' class to study argument and counter-argument and to try to encourage debate on relevant topics. It's very British/parliamentary style, but it's helpful as an example. Finally, I use the rules laid out by a recent debate for foreign language HS students hosted by Hanguk University for Foreign Studies (HUFS), but I'm not sure what the link is, as the students I was coaching gave me a hard copy.

    For my American Culture class, we use the textbook American Ways: An Introduction to American Culture by Maryanne Kearny Datesman, et al.. It's a really balanced, generally anthropologically sound approach to American culture, often based around Alexis de Tocqueville's original assessment in the ninteenth century, but very up-to-date. Again, supplementing with a lot of primary source material. It's got lots of interesting stuff to discuss and debate (actually, we chose the topics because they were mentioned in the book).

    Sorry it took so long to get back to you, but I wanted to make sure of my resources.

  3. *sigh* I just realized that I never stopped by again to say 'thank you' for all the links and research that went into your reply. It was, however, very much appreciated!

    Debate courses at my 학원 involve setting aside one session every week (Fridays) to cover the subject with our highest-level class. Our franchise headquarters created a book to be used in class that includes four different topics for debate. It mentions some of the very basic guidelines to debate (posture, speaking clarity, looking at the audience) but I've found it very challenging to get students involved in an extended discussion on any of the topics within the book.

    I assume (a large?) part of the 'problem' is how I'm presenting the information from their book, though having students all share the same opinion on a topic obviously doesn't make things any easier.

  4. "I assume (a large?) part of the 'problem' is how I'm presenting the information from their book, though having students all share the same opinion on a topic obviously doesn't make things any easier."

    We assigned sides. We chose topics that were not emotional "hot buttons" for Koreans (like Sea of Japan, the current president, comfort women, and Dokdo), but truly controversial topics in America. We also explained the "spirit of friendly debate" because Korean students are loath to disagree with each other.

    Interestingly, in the mock trials we saw more real "free debate" as they argued against each other because it was a pretend situation. Perhaps you could start them off with something like that, just to get them comfortable disagreeing?



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