Bringing History to Life—Student Competitive Team Debate!

By Sara Qatabi  —

Both junior teams at Claremont International High School have been preparing for a debate on imperialism. The question for the debate was “Was imperialism helpful or harmful in the regions of India and the Congo?” To prepare, students in their classes explored imperialism; its motives, causes, and the short-and long-term effects it had on China, India, and the continent of Africa before World War I. Additionally, they closely examined the philosophies that pioneered imperialism through the scrutiny of both the poem “The White Man’s Burden” by Rudyard Kipling and social Darwinism.

After learning basic background information on imperialism, students in heterogeneous groupings analyzed various primary sources—textual and visual—in the course of a week. In this process, they evaluated different perspectives from historical actors, speeches, paintings, poems, idioms, and statistics about imperialism in the regions of India and the Congo. Each class was then divided into these two regions. Each region used their set of primary sources, in addition to online primary resources and research, to analyze arguments in support and against imperialism. In heterogeneous groups of varying languages, literacy skills and capacities, students read, annotated, and analyzed their primary sources. They marked each document to determine if it can be used to support or oppose imperialism. Afterwards, they collectively made decisions about how they should best divide the task amongst themselves with the consideration of their own strengths, capacities, and interest.  Each group was assigned to compose four arguments, an opening statement, and a closing statement. I assigned them their regions and their position in the debate after they answered a survey that asked them to identify a person they would like to work with and can help them, and one person they would like to help.

It took one week for the students to write all the parts of the debate. After one week, they had one day to practice debating with their classmates. It was during this trial that students were able to reflect on what makes a strong argument during a debate. With the support of a teacher acting as a facilitator, they were able to identify that a debate’s strength is determined by persuasive evidence, analysis of the evidence, strong body language, and confidence. Their favorite part was the rebuttal. It was at this point when students would cheer as they became very passionate, and those that were unhappy arguing in support of imperialism became converts—arguing with passion that imperialism had many benefits!

During the day of the debate, the audience and the presenters were full of excitement. What added to the excitement, nervousness, and passion in the debate was the fact that they were debating the other junior team. The tremendous pressure from peers was an incentive for students to practice, to prepare, and to win! Because of this, the debate held in the library was very successful. Students at that point did not participate in the debate merely because they wanted a grade or to show mastery. They were focused on the prize: to win! They had an outside audience for whom they wanted to prove that they can win. They did not want to let each other down. For this reason, some students took initiative in preparing materials that I had not suggested or requested.

One of the things some groups did was print powerful images that illustrated either the successes of imperialism such as industrialization, or its destruction, such as slavery. They wanted to emotionally appeal to the audience, using visuals and making powerful statements. Many students came in dressing professionally, printed their own speeches, and brought note cards with so many notes. And when the debate was taking place, I did not have to ask students to pay attention, look up, or listen. The audience was completely engaged andat times during  the rebuttals or when strong statements were madestudents in the audience would stand, clap, and shout “yes!”

My favorite moments were the unexpected applause and the shock that some students’ performances caused for their classmates. Some shy students were unexpectedly outspoken, and it completely stunned their classmates. Their classmates afterwards continued applauding them as they were dismissed, high fiving, and even hugged them.  The talk about the debate continued for days. A day prior, my colleagues reported that students in their classes kept talking about the debate. They were reminding each other about it, giving each other feedback on their mini-speeches, and revising their work! Some groups mandated each other to stay after school to prepare. And then after the debate that the next class of students attendedthe conversations continued to linger. They kept talking about the debate, who did what, and how they felt.  They expressed to my colleagues how nervous they were, and how excited, and how they wanted to continue arguing in the rebuttal. They told one of their teachers how their classmates “were on fire.” They were so excited and the discussion about it lasted days!

In the last day of classes, I had students complete a survey. The majority’s favorite project was the debate. Students explained that they liked “academically arguing to win” against the other team. They expressed that while they found difficulty in presenting, debate required them to improvise, think on their feet, and make use of the “persuasive transition” vocabulary that they were familiar with. The experience of the debate was challenging, engaging, and relevant to their world view. I am confident that they will never forget it!

The success of the debate is inherent to the design of the unit and the planning of the units from the beginning of the year. Prior to the imperialism unit, students had studied the Renaissance and the Age of Exploration. For the final project on the Renaissance, students individually composed a persuasive speech. Using ethos, pathos, and logos, they argued why their assigned Renaissance person is deserving of a reward for being the most effective Renaissance figure. In the Age of Exploration, the final project was an argumentative essay in which students were given a choice in writing about one of the unit’s essential questions. The questions were:

  1. Was the Age of Exploration age of Exploitation? Why or why not? And to what extent?
  2. Should Christopher Columbus be Celebrated? Why or Why not?
  3. What were the causes and effects of the Age of Exploration? To what extent was it helpful or harmful?

In this project, students were expected to support their thesis with three evidence based argumentsusing primary and secondary sourcesand to identify a counterclaim which they refuted in the essay. The sequence of these units built the foundations for a successful debate. In the Renaissance unit,  students learned the persuasive techniques, and in their Age of Exploration unit, student developed the skills of thinking about what the opposing side would argue. During the preparation period, prior to the debate, I often reminded students of what they had learned in previous units, and guided them to apply their skills in this debate. Hence, students were able to think on their feet during the rebuttal, utilizing all the skills they had acquired throughout the year in this performance.

Other factors that contributed to the success of the debate included the structure of their groupings. The heterogeneous and collaborative structures in my classroom allowed the students to build on the strengths of each member and optimize their learning and performance. They themselves assigned different arguments, documents, and tasks amongst each other. In fact, in this process, they did what I dodifferentiate! During my circulation in the class, students chose their facilitator, and as a group discussed who would like to take on a very challenging argument or a simplified text. I did not want to interfere and assign roles, but I did help guide the conversation and encouraged students to take part in the decision-making in their groups. In general, as the year progresses from September to June, I remove myself from being the teacher to being the facilitator. I do this intentionally so students can develop autonomy and greater responsibility for their own learning. Instead of me as their teacher posing questions, with time, guidance and practice, students become the ones that pose the questions, and take greater ownership and initiative in their learning. The goal is for them to become independent and skilled learners.


The most important element that contributed to the success of the debate is the relevancy and relatability of the topic.  Many, if not all, of my students come from countries that have been colonized. The accessibility of the context of the topic and how the students were able to personally connect to it enabled them to become passionate, to improvise, and take greater ownership of their learning. They owned the debate! They were intrigued and some enraged by the philosophies that imperialists used to justify imperialism. They were fascinated by the Boxer Rebellion and how the British imperialists traded Opium to weaken China. The point that I am trying to convey is that the unit itself was relevant to my students. It spoke their language, their experiences, their history, and their world view.  They were able to make their own judgements and give their own opinion. They were able to connect it to today’s world and that which is happening still. Every student was engaged; even the ones that do not like history. The debate transformed students from passive recipients of knowledge into active historical actors. They were experiencing history in the process. They acted as imperialists and as victims of imperialismtraveling through time through imagination and passion. They put themselves in the shoes of historic figures. History came to life—and their excitement lingered. And the best part of my full day’s debate? I got to witness their excitement and cheering each other on for their triumph.

Sara Qatabi is a 9th and 10 grade Global History teacher at Claremont International High School and a graduate of Brooklyn International High School.

Read Sara’s speech she gave at the 2018 Internationals Network Fall Professional Development Conference. >>>

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