The 2012 Presidential Debates: Teachable Moments

Good teachers want to incorporate current events into our classrooms.  But’s it’s hard.  This takes strategic planning and we can feel like we’re creating lessons that won’t live beyond this moment in history—it's frustrating.

I still struggle.  But I found a way to use the 2012 debates in my high-school English classes so students gather information, analyze it, and make a decision.  These activities can be used over and over with other debates or any argumentative texts that present opposing views.

There are still two more opportunities before the election.  Students can even go back and watch previous debates.

Here’s what to do.

Step 1: Have students understand Aristotle’s rhetorical triangle

I developed an activity (see rhetorical triangle blog document) where students cut out the different aspects of ethos, pathos, logos and categorize them.  They work with a partner to put the element in the category where they think it belongs.  But they don’t glue them yet.  They get about five minutes.

Next, I call on different students to tell us about one prediction.  I sometimes ask another if she agrees or disagrees.  Finally, I reveal the correct placement and students glue that element.  We go through each element and glue them appropriately (use glue sticks) in about fifteen minutes.  This is the sheet they refer to throughout the lesson.

Next, students can view images or videos from each candidates’ campaign (easily found online).  They complete these sentence stems to make sure they understand rhetorical elements:

  1. Describe the ad:
  2. We see the pathos element of __(from triangle sheet)__ in _______
  3. We see the logos element of ________ in _______
  4. This combination results in (high / low) ethos because ____________.

Teachers can show 3-5 images—some positive, some negative—in one class period or even as bell ringers.

Step 2: Students watch 30 minutes of the debate

I have my students do this for homework, but this can be done in class as well.  I've had good results with the last two debates.  The only students who did not watch were working.  One student said the day after the first debate, “I was bored but I watched the whole thing.”  They'll get into it.

Before they watch, each student creates an organizer with three columns.  One organizer for each candidate.

The big column taking up 2/3 of the page is “What the candidate says.”  The other 1/3 is divided into two small columns:   Pathos / Logos

As students watch for thirty minutes, they write down at least ten things each candidate says.  If they view it in class, I recommend the last thirty minutes of the debate so they hear the closing statements.

After they stop viewing, they put a check mark under the appropriate appeal.  If it connects to emotions, they check pathos.  If it appeals to reason, they check logos.  They can use their rhetorical triangle sheet to help them.

Step 3: Understand how debates work

I came across this news piece on National Public Radio that explains “How Politicians Get Away with Dodging the Question.”

This can be used before or after the debate.  As we listen, I stop it periodically to help students answer these comprehension questions:

Stop at 1:26

1. How does President Bush pivot from the question: What would you say to someone who lost his job to a company overseas?

Stop at 2:19

2. How often do good debaters use the pivot?

3. Why is the pivot critical for candidates?

Stop at 2:58

4. Why does the pivot work?

Stop at 4:56

5. How do most viewers respond to pivots?

6. What happens when the question and answer are about the same topic?

7. What happens when the question and answer are about different topics?

Stop at 5:40

8. Most people can detect pivots when . . .

9. This happens because . . .

Stop at end

10. Why can politicians (and other people) get away with dodging questions as much as 70% of time?

11. What are some solutions to help viewers?

12. Do you think solutions will work?

Step 4: Analyze the candidates’ responses

I go on the Web and find a news article that explains what each candidates’ job is at the debate.  I’ll search “Ryan’s purpose at debate," for example.  Here’s what I found for us to use with the vice-presidential debate:

Ryan’s Purpose from a CNN article: To present Romney’s vision without sounding too much like a think tank staffer (solely a numbers guy)

Biden’t purpose from NPR: To defend and sell President Obama

I show these on the board (PowerPoint slides help) and students then circle or highlight anything on their organizer that supports the candidate’s rhetorical purpose.  We do one candidate at time.

Then we take a survey for each candidate:

  1. Raise your hand if you highlighted less than 50% of this candidate’s comments?  Teacher writes this on the board.
  2. Raise your hand if you highlighted 50% of this candidate’s comments?  Put it on the board.
  3. Raise your hand if you highlighted more than 50% of this candidate’s comments.  Write it.

Based on our data, we we decide who won.  The winner for question 1 should have a lower number.  This candidate did not pivot away from his rhetorical purpose.

The winner for questions 2 and 3 should have higher numbers.  This candidate did not pivot away from his rhetorical purpose.  He fulfilled his purpose by doing his job.

The two times we did this after the first presidential debate and vice-presidential debates, our results supported what many news commentators said.  Romney won the first one.  Biden, based on the rhetorical purpose, barely won his debate.

Step 5: Write a decision statement

I support students through a compare / contrast paragraph where they present an argument to explain who won.  Most students go along with our class findings, but it’s acceptable to have a small number of students argue a different perspective.  It mirrors real public opinion.

This is written as a paragraph.  I list the sentences to make it easily read.  The blanks are filled in with the candidates’ names and evidence from their organizer.  The last two sentence address the impact of pathos and logos respectively.

Both ____ and _____ wanted to . . .

However, ____ succeeded at . . . while _____ failed at . . .

Instead of ___ like __(weaker speaker goes here)___ ,  ___(the stronger speaker)__ . . .

For example,  . . . (evidence from organizer)

___ also presented himself more convincingly when he . . .  (evidence from organizer)

Consequently, the audience felt . . . , which resulted in . . .

We also began to consider . . .

After the debates, we joked about Romney’s Big Bird comment and students had strong opinions about Biden’s smiles.

Steps 3, 4, and 5 are possible in a fifty-minute period.  But if your students need more time, that’s fine too.

My hope is that the interest in our nation’s politics and my students’ ability to intelligently form political decisions lasts long after the bell rings.


Are there other activities you use during election season?

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