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Thanks to their newly acquired debate skills, Jefferson Middle School students are more prepared for their upcoming English Language Arts exam.

Throughout the week, seventh- and eighth-grade students have participated in a series of debates covering a variety of controversial topics. The arguments were heated at times, but were moderated in a healthy and constructive environment.

The debate series is hosted every year by Greg Duncanson, ELA teacher, to prepare his students for the ELA exam later in the spring while also adhering to New York state’s Common Core Learning Standards. According to Duncanson, the debate process helps students to think critically about material that may be unfamiliar to them.

“I’ve been doing the debates for 12 years,” said Duncanson. “Initially, (debates) were a way of addressing the New York state (Common Core Learning) standards that came out in 1999. If you go down the list, (the debate process) hits every standard just about head on.”

He added: “It’s an effective way for students to learn how to research a topic and coordinate that research, as well as learn to work together in dividing up and coordinating tasks and jobs. It forces them to read subject matter that, ordinarily, they would shy away from, like vocabulary they’re unfamiliar with. And as a result, it expands their ability to comprehend different types of writing.”

The debate process takes place over a six-week period, during which the students research controversial topics. Some of the topics include: the usefulness and safety of social networks; legalization of marijuana; whether government assistance programs should be restricted or eliminated; the effects of violence in video games on an individual’s behavior; whether illegal aliens should be deported; corporal punishment in schools; gun violence, and assisted suicide.

Students are expected to research arguments for and against their assigned topic, and are only made aware of the side on which they will be arguing three days before their debate. Classes are broken up into teams, two of which debate each topic to provide both sides of the argument. They are encouraged to include empirical evidence in the form of research and study statistics as well as current events to support their stance.

In addition to verbally presenting their arguments, students had an opportunity to write their own introductory, rebuttal and concluding statements.

“In general, they have a lack of familiarity with that kind of reading and writing,” said Duncanson. “This gets them writing in a manner that they’re not used to.”

The debates generally run for as long as the students can maintain them without becoming sidetracked. After the concluding statements, the teams are asked questions by their classmates who then take a vote on which team won the debate.

Overall, the winners and losers are unimportant, according to Duncanson. Instead, he uses a rubrik to grade each student on their individual performance in areas such as: participation, organization, effectiveness, perception to the opponent’s weak points and understanding the key points of the debate.