The following is a guest post written by Carmello Chiara detailing how he uses Listenwise to teach digital literacy and debate skills while playing to the strengths of his high school students.

Carmello Chiara is an English Language Arts teacher at Warren Hills Regional High School in Washington, New Jersey. He is in his eleventh year of teaching and, in addition to his usual crew of 9th and 11th grade ELA classes, he loves teaching two unique ELA elective courses, “Superheroes: Modern Mythology” and “Video Games as Literature.” 

Listenwise Debates

High school students are very opinionated. My 9th and 11th grade ELA students are no strangers to expressing their opinions, but their ability to understand an opposing viewpoint— particularly when they disagree with it— could use some work. 

As a teacher I watch my students explore their world and their emotions while discovering what matters to them. I believe that an important part of that self development process is learning how to express opinions in a clear, direct, and thoughtful manner.

I use Listenwise in my classroom to help my students to develop active listening and argumentation skills. Listenwise’s debate stories provide excellent, real-world content that helps me teach these valuable skills with engaging material that is relevant to their lives. It is one thing to be able to speak, but listening and making determinations and decisions based on listening is a skill that can broaden our students’ minds and understanding of the world around them.

The Importance of Learning Debate Skills

The internet is still in its “Wild West” phase — we are about 30 years into its lifetime, and it has changed so much from its usage on the desktop computers of my youth. There are growing pains, and schools have tried to educate students on appropriate online discourse through ideas like “digital literacy.” While this has been a noble pursuit, the anonymity of the internet continues to be a space where opinions are widely shared and bias is strong.

I do not profess to have all the answers on how to make my students the generation that uses their internet powers for good, but through intentionally teaching debate skills in my classroom I hope to show my students how to express strong opinions about important issues in a persuasive way. 

As I mentioned before, I think that exposing students to debate is a vital part of helping students become more open-minded and aware of the world around them. Listenwise debates help me inspire my students to express themselves, respect others, and be more open to the experiences of other people. 

Several Listenwise debate stories cover the subjects of digital citizenship, digital literacy, and issues surrounding diversity, equity, and inclusion that impact the lives of my students. Being able to access vetted, high-quality debate stories through Listenwise helps me teach my students real world skills using real world content.

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Getting Started: Setting Up Classroom and Online Debates

The first step of preparing for my classroom and online debates is to find a debate story. Listenwise makes it easy to find debate stories; just search under the tag “debate” to find a wealth of potential lessons. Listenwise typically posts a debate lesson on Fridays, and often they are related to current events, so there are always new stories being added. 

While all debated subjects are worthwhile for students, I am particularly interested in finding debate subject matter that speaks to my students’ experiences. I find that if the story is relevant to them, they will express their opinion much more readily and with less coaxing! Some examples of some recent debate stories that generated great classroom discussion include “Debate: Are Emojis Language?” and “Debate: Are Kids Too Stressed Today?”

Once I have found the story I want to use, I will listen to it myself first and try to answer the debate question myself. I ask myself questions like “Can I see both sides of this issue?” and “Can I make an educated guess as to where I think the class will swing?” This helps me to prepare for the many opinions that will surface during the in-person and online classroom debates. 

Next, on Google Classroom, I create a “Question” and make sure it is exactly the title of the Listenwise debates. I list the instructions for how students will answer the question, and I make sure to copy the URL link to the story. That link is then attached to the Question on Google Classroom. One of the most important steps is making sure the Question is set to “short answer,” so students have enough space to write about the question. 

Finally, I make sure to check the boxes for both “Students May Reply to Each Other” and “Students May Edit Answer.” Once I am set, the question is posted and we listen to the story all together as a class. While we’re listening to the story, I use Listenwise’s transcript feature to help my students follow along as they listen. The transcript functions as captions for what they are listening to and helps them actively listen along. This helps to reinforce the purpose of this assignment and ensure my students’ comprehension of the podcast even if they are new to listening to podcasts. 

As my students listen to the debate, I ask them to write down evidence and examples from the story that may help them form their opinions in our class debate. Once the story is finished, I allow them about 3-4 minutes to jot down their initial opinions. When that is finished, we hold a classroom debate. 

Classroom Debate

I was a shy student in high school, and even in college. I always felt I had the thoughts to express, but convincing my mouth to actually speak the words was very difficult. These experiences have given me insight into understanding that students’ discussion skills often come down to two types: those who are not afraid to speak, and speak often, and those who never speak, but want to. I call these two types of students my “bold speakers” and “quiet thinkers.”

What will naturally happen during our classroom debates is that the more vocal students (my “bold speakers”) will express their opinions quickly and easily. That is not going to be the case for every student, particularly my “quiet thinkers.” Occasionally I call directly on students to share their response, and they usually feel comfortable doing so because they have already written down some notes and opinions on the debate question. Sometimes I randomly choose students using popsicle sticks with student names on them, or a randomization website.

The live classroom portion of the debate allows the “bold speakers”  to exercise their vocal skills and gives the “quiet thinkers” space to listen to their peers, which may help struggling students develop their opinions. 

Since not every student will feel comfortable sharing their responses aloud, the second part of this activity provides a space for “quiet thinkers” to engage in debate online.

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Online Debate

Once we are finished with our live classroom debate and discussion, I require my students to do the following: 

  1. Answer the debate question that has been posted to Google Classroom with 5-7 sentences on the subject. 
  2. Include either direct textual evidence or examples from the story that support their opinion.
  3. Once other students have submitted their responses, they are to respond to two different students’ posts.

I ask my students to ensure that their reply meets the following criteria: it must agree or disagree with the student, it must help extend the debate, it must be professional, and it must be longer than one sentence. The pitfall here is that students often will write something as simple as, “I agree.” In those circumstances, I work with the student to develop their responses in a way that contributes to our class’ online discourse.

Enjoy the View from the Top

Creating opportunities to practice debate in the classroom and online takes work, but it’s an interesting kind of work! Using Listenwise to source debate stories for my classroom helps take care of some of the heavy lifting. My students find Listenwise debates to be engaging, and they often look forward to them. Our classroom debates are typically about 10 minutes long, but some topics are so interesting that we find ourselves needing extra time! 

It may be cliche, but I do love the adage that an educator’s goal is to bring students up to where we are,  the “mountaintop.” There are beautiful views up here! It takes work to get there, but once you reach the top you can’t wait to share with others and let them see what you see. As teachers, we guide our students and encourage them along in their education because we know the “views” up on the mountain peak are beautiful and inspiring — but we cannot force them up that mountain. We need to inspire them and implore them to follow us as the guide, so that they too can see there is a different way of seeing things than they might assume. 

Listenwise Staff Picks 2023

For more ideas on using Listenwise debate stories in the classroom, read Teaching Written Argument with Debate Stories.