Having your students watch presidential debates is a hugely worthwhile endeavor whether it’s election season or not. Obviously when election day is approaching, it’s good to let students see what both major candidates have to say about the issues and the country.
Videos of past debates, though, can also be really useful when studying history. Imagine teaching the Cold War era and showing students segments from the iconic Kennedy/Nixon debates, for example.
Engagement is Key
The challenge of using presidential debates to help you teach current events or historical periods, however, is keeping students highly engaged while they watch. Most students, even in the earlier grades, can watch 5 minutes without their eyes glazing over, but much more than that and you might start losing the attention and interest of many of your students. This is particularly true for younger students, but it can also be a challenge even with high school seniors, since some of them are a *lot* more immature than others.
Keeping Students Engaged: Live Blogging
I’ve got a few tricks up my sleeve when it comes to keeping students engaged during debates. Sometimes, I have my classes do “live blogging,” where they’re commenting on the debate, and replying to one another’s comments, as they watch. This has been quite a successful strategy for me, but it does have a few drawbacks:
• Because students are writing commentary as they watch, they will definitely focus in on some points and miss others entirely.
• You’ll need internet access, a live blogging platform such as a discussion board, and quite a lot of student devices so they can all be online simultaneously.
• Even when students are trying their best to stay on task, their discussions will inevitably drift away from the debate issues at times.
• Live blogging assignments require quite a bit of maturity on the part of students. Younger students, or those who act like they’re still in middle or elementary school, can easily let an online discussion, especially one about a heated topic, degenerate into insults or other classroom-inappropriate language. Plus, since the students are online while the debate plays, some of them might be wandering all over the internet and not paying attention to the candidates at all.
A Solution at Your Fingertips! Presidential Debate Bingo!
Presidential Debate Bingo is another handy technique you can employ for keeping students interested and engaged while watching a debate. Although I’ve prepared a free packet of Presidential Debate Bingo Worksheets to make life really easy for my fellow teachers, you don’t really need to print anything out in order to play bingo during debates. Just have students sketch out a grid, mark off the center square as a free zone, and explain how the game works.
Once students have a grid ready, either one they’ve drawn themselves or one you’ve printed off from my free Presidential Debate Bingo sheets, you have them predict what key words or phrases they expect to hear during the debate. Have them fill in one word or phrase per square on their grid.
This usually takes between 5 and 10 minutes, depending on the size of the grid in use and the background knowledge level of the students.
When grids are ready, play the debate or the debate segment you want the class to watch. Tell students to listen carefully so that they can mark off their words/phrases as they occur. If you have stickers handy, students –even high school seniors!– love using them to mark off their squares. Otherwise, you can have students cross through their entries as they watch.
It’s as simple as that! If you’re like me, you might be raising your eyebrows at this point, wondering if students will really find debate bingo all that engaging. Honestly, I doubted it myself. But when I gave it a try, I was very pleasantly surprised! Students were highly engaged and on-task as they tried to come up with words and phrases to use in their grids — they were really intent on coming up with things they thought would definitely come up during the debate.
Then, during the debate, they were *riveted,* listening for the key words they had identified. Students who are normally fairly apathetic about classroom activities can get extremely focused as they try to win the game. And this was when I hadn’t offered any prizes! They wanted to win for the sake of it, but that’s okay with me if it produced higher student engagement to help them learn.
My Presidential Debate Bingo worksheets offer three pre-made levels. All that changes from level to level is the size of the grid and the complexity of the instructions. For elementary school, I recommend the 3 x 3 grid. For middle school and 9th-10th grade, the 5 x 5 grid is probably a better choice. High school juniors and seniors can probably handle the 7 x 7 grid, especially if they’ve watched a previous debate between the same two candidates, or if their studies include a good dose of current events.
• Be specific about what kinds of entries you expect. The larger grids I’ve made specify that students should use nouns. This is to avoid having students fill their grids with words that will appear in any conversation, such as he, she, that, of, the.
• Requiring nouns means doing a little grammar review with some students, but that’s good! I also tell them that noun phrases are fine.
• During the brainstorming phase, it’s a good idea to prompt the class with categories that might come up in the debate. So, for example: “Don’t use the candidates’ own names, but try to think of what other people they might mention. You can write down their names.” Or: “What countries have been in the news lately? You could use country names in some of your squares.” Or: “If you can think of an issue that might come up, you can fill some squares with vocabulary commonly used for that issue. For example, if you think they might debate education, you could try words like teacher, school, textbook….”
• Before you start the video, tell students what speech counts for marking off their grids. Just what the candidates say? What about what the moderator or town hall participants mention? Create a clear rule.
• Consider playing blackout instead of bingo. In my experience, most students get so many squares marked off that blackout is probably the better choice.
• Decide in advance if you want to have some small prizes available. Students love this game regardless, but prizes could make it even more fun.
I hope this free resource helps you make the most of presidential debates, current-day or historical, in class!
If you’re like me and you love to use primary sources in history class, you might find these teaching packets useful. New Deal Worksheets: Propaganda Poster Analysis are great for students who like visual learning or who just want a break from traditional textbook narratives. The Four Freedoms Close Reading, in contrast, asks students to dive deep into complex text and is a perfect FDR Common Core activity!