structured group time + authentic audience = spawn of impromptu student debates

I’ve got over 30 recorded minutes of an un-prompted, un-facilitated (probably more like 45+ minute) student debate that spawned out of my classroom today.  I only interacted to wave at a voice recorder that I set down at the table.  I noticed that something had started as one group turned around to talk to another about their competing solutions to a problem we posed in our latest project.  (This past month, students are driven by the question: In light of the pressing financial burden of running our government as-is, how can we as political advisers effectively eliminate one branch of the United States government but still run efficiently as a country?)  As two students (who are known for their opinions and leadership in our class) picked apart each other’s arguments for their solutions, one table turned around… then another walked over… then the class clown(s) noticed and wanted to get a piece of it… and soon we had most of the class circling around this debate that no one prompted… except the students themselves.

What’s impressive is that much of the debate was self-sustained by the students themselves.  They policed to keep the clowns from interrupting the dialogue.  They even stopped to set protocols and try to salvage the debate when tones got testy; interruptions showed rudeness; or listening was not its finest.  I was proud.  They should be proud, too.

This comes after the heat was turned up under their feet.  As a PBL facilitator, what good would our project be if we didn’t bring in some real-world experts, right?  Well, upon the announcement that our state representative and a city alderman would be on the panel of presentation judges/evaluators, I saw a renewed interest in the project as a whole.

What should we wear in front of them?

Will we have to answer questions from them?

What kinds of questions will they ask?

Is he gonna be mad if we get rid of [the equivalent of] his job?

Talk about authenticity.  Well, rigor, too.  I don’t think I could have motivated/dragged them along to ask the last few, even if I put on a song and dance routine.  Not with graphic organizers.  Not with deadlines.  Not with grades.  What I saw today was personal investment because my students asked themselves, “Who am I going to impress tomorrow with my education?”  There was quite an energy today in finding out a new, expert audience will be a part of the evaluation process.

Students scrambled to make impressive PowerPoints, get my feedback or practice their timing and transitions between speakers.  It was a good day and one which I could never have predicted to show itself on a Monday.  With finals coming up — when all school seems to be winding down and holiday excitement winding the kids up — I’m glad to see that our group of sophomores is finally “getting” what New Tech is supposed to be all about.  Now, let’s see what they’ve got tomorrow.

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