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Lesson Plans

Active Citizenship: Discussion vs. Debate, or, Hosting a Successful Dinner Party

Bronwen Exter of Bard High School Early College in New York.

Bronwen E. Exter
Bard High School Early College
New York, N.Y.

Title: Active Citizenship: Discussion vs. Debate, or, Hosting a Successful Dinner Party

Relevant State Standards

  • New York State Social Studies Learning Standards: Commencement Level
  • Standard 1: History of the United States and New York (4)
  • Standard 5: Civics, Citizenship, and Government (2, 3, 4)

Generative Topics and Enduring Understandings

  • Knowledge: What you don’t understand controls you (i.e., “knowledge is power.”) Deepen and expand knowledge of current events issues.
  • Approach: “Reframing” dichotomy-complicating the idea of there being “both sides” (i.e., only two) sides to a story or issue-sparks interest.
  • Skill: Learn how to have a fruitful and informed political discussion that allows for disagreement and complexity.
  • Understanding: Active citizenship requires a curious, skeptical mind, and open, respectful dialogue.

Generative Objects

  • Short TV and radio clips from "Jerry Springer," "Larry King Live," argumentative morning radio programs, etc.
  • A black and a white sheet of paper, a globe, gray scale and color spectrums used in photography, a multifaceted crystal sphere & a sunny window

Understanding Goals

  • Essential Questions
    • How do we engage in the practice of freedom?
    • How are issues framed? Who creates the frame? How are dichotomies created?
    • How would a country of informed, discerning citizens look different than what we see around us?
    • What are the elements of a good discussion?
    • How do you come to form your opinions?
  • Critical Engagement Questions
    • What are soundbites?
    • How do the media promote a simplistic worldview? Would most people perceive the media as simplistic? Why/ Why not?
    • How do the media help or hinder us from active citizenship?
    • How do you identify and question dichotomies? For example, is “Civil liberties vs. Homeland Security” a false dichotomy?
    • Given that current events issues are always more complicated than as presented by the mainstream media, how do you know when you are informed?


  • Activity 1: Complicating dichotomy
    • I believe oversimplification is one of the most significant threats to education, because once something “makes sense” the brain stops wondering “why?” While organization of the world is of course necessary in order to make any sense or meaning out of it, students seem to internalize too many simple messages which, at best, turn them off to inquiry and, at worst, turn them into extremists.
    • Introduce the concept of dichotomy using black and white paper, drawing a line on the chalkboard with two ends, pointing out the two poles on a globe, etc. Ask students to brainstorm a list of dichotomies they can think of (birth/ death, right/ left, right/ wrong, cold/ hot, straight/ gay etc.). Discuss extremes.
    • Begin to complicate the idea of dichotomy by playing the “human barometer” game: tape up two signs on either end of the classroom, one that says “Agree” and another that says “Disagree.” Read a series of statements of particular and controversial relevance to students, asking them to position themselves in the room according to their opinion. Allowing students not only to stand in the middle but also to move as their opinions are swayed, have students share why they chose to stand where they are standing. Introduce a third sign into the game, “Depends,” and with it the idea of there being a “gray area” between black and white into which most things fall. Using the brainstormed list of dichotomies, locate the middle areas, allowing for complexity and some that don’t work.
    • Finally, compare the gray scale to a color spectrum and discuss the implications of expanding the metaphor. Hold the crystal in the sunlight to demonstrate the limitless possibilities for framing, perspective, coexistence, diversity, etc.
  • Activity 2: Dialogue and the art of segue
    • (Adapted from the Bard College Writing and Thinking Workshop)
    • The following lesson is designed to help build a respectful learning community and to de-center authority in the classroom.
    • Show some volatile clips of "Jerry Springer," "Larry King Live," etc before a class discussion, as a demonstration of “unproductive” dialogue. Brainstorm the elements of a “good” discussion. Define and explain the concepts of active listening and “segue.” In the class discussion that follows (any topic), seat students in a circle and encourage them to take notes from each other’s comments.
    • Discussion rules:
      • everyone must speak at least once (if necessary, for a homework grade)
      • every comment must follow a previous statement and be addressed to that speaker using the following format “I hear you (or name) saying. (paraphrase a previous statement) and/ but. (comment or question)”. For a few minutes at the end of class, ask students to write reflectively about their experiences of engaging in the discussion that day-what was challenging, what was different than usual, what they are taking away from it, etc.
  • Activity 3: Hosting a successful dinner party
    • The following activity may take several classes, and can be adapted as a final performance assessment tool:
    • In four groups of five, present students with a problem-solving project using the following scenario, assigning a different topic/ issue to each group: “You are planning a dinner party for a group of friends. You take a break from getting ready to glance through the newspaper, only to discover that two of your guests have published letters to the editor that day from diametrically-opposed points of view. Among your other guests are someone who has decision-making power in some capacity (e.g., an elected representative) and a character of your choice-someone who is affected by the issue but doesn’t seem to realize it, someone who has no set opinion but is curious and asks a lot of questions, etc. How can you guide the conversation at dinner so that all perspectives are heard, and you as a host are able to engage each of your guests with arguments that challenge their assumptions and opinions?”
    • Each group should discuss the issue, scenario and problem, assign roles, then research the issue. They should then determine the 3 most important points each character should make clear during the discussion, and plan as realistic a role-play as possible for the class in which the evening ends both peacefully and with some productive, informative conclusion to the issues discussed.
    • During the dinner parties, other students should take close notes for the culminating position paper, in which they discuss the issues presented and take a stand. Encourage them to leave a space for lingering questions.


Students will be regularly evaluated on participation in class discussion and activities, and reflective focused free writes addressing the Essential and Critical Engagement Questions. While I see the final activity as a valuable assessment tool based on students’ ability to clearly identify and practice the art of an informed discussion from different perspectives, an additional demonstration of that understanding could also be addressed in a position paper (or a collection of position paragraphs), asking students to synthesize what they have learned about the issues and about approaching an understanding of current events. An adaptation of this assessment could involve a follow-up peer-review session of the position paragraphs (if each student writes a position for each issue, the group presenting the issue originally could use a detailed rubric to evaluate the writer’s understanding and, ultimately, the success of their own presentation.

Resources Recommended

Bronwen E. Exter’s lesson plan was published in The Media and Democracy Curriculum Compendium 2002, Barrett andGreyser editors, published by Harvard University, Cambridge, Mass.

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