Are the Debates Teachable Moments?

Let me start with the answer to the question posed in this title: Yes, debates can most assuredly be teachable moments and more importantly, there is real value in helping children process them effectively with quality educators in a school setting.

Let’s put politics aside (assuming that is even possible) and ask the question this way: What can our children learn from the debates related to the upcoming election?  What can they learn about themselves and their peers?

For me, these debates can be evaluated on several levels but whatever level one chooses, they seem to generate strong feelings and thoughts. 

Debate One

Children likely reacted to the argumentative style exhibited in the first debate and interruptions of each candidate as the other spoke. Add to this that the moderator, who had rules, could not get the debate under control, hard as he tried.  (He was like a teacher in an unruly classroom where the teacher has lost the ability to get the students to engage.)

For some children, the debate sounded like fighting, and that in and of itself may have been a trigger of memories of uncomfortable fights within their families and communities.  For children who struggle with rules and rule obedience, one wonders if the flaunting of rules messaged that rules don’t matter – at least for some people.   And, the debates messaged about personality and tone and style.  And, make no mistake about it: the most knowledgeable and well-educated teacher of substance may irritate children if he/she is disrespectful, dismissive, nasty and aggressive. 

Some watchers had to turn off that first debate or walk away. Others were left with nagging negative feelings.  Autonomic nervous system were and perhaps will are on high alert.  

Ask: Were any of these issues processed with children in schools? Were I a guessing person, the answer would be no – in part because schools are online or hybrid and changing up the curriculum might be difficult and hard to do in terms of getting the right non-political pitch and approach.  And, there is the issue of time and preparation.  

But there is an opening for students to process the events if they can get in touch with what the debate evoked in them.  Think about how feeling identification (both positive and negative) would be beneficial.  And The Feeling Alphabet Activity Set could have been used to help with that effort, adapted to be sure.

Debate Two

Yes, there were different parties: a woman and a man.  And, at least at first listen, the tone and style were different – but not that different.   And, there was less in terms of personal and family attacking.  But, make no mistake about it: this debate was also laced with nastiness.  And there was rule disobedience.  

Students could compare and contrast debate style within this second debate and between the first and second debates.  That would be a useful exercise.  And it begs for us to ask:  Who was easiest to listen to? Who shared the most substance (assuming its veracity)?  Who showed respect for others?

But, for an educational perspective, I cannot help but focus on the fly on the head of the VP’s white hair for two seconds.  Surely, that can make children and adults laugh. And, it fosters a wide range of funny thoughts:  Did the VP know it was there?  Could you feel a fly on your head?   Why would a fly stay in place for so long?  And, were you a conspiracy theorist, was the fly actually a tracking device or a hearing device or a device to get signals (like positive or negative beeps to answers given)?  Imagine children drawing and writing about the fly on the head – that would be a creative exercise.

For all students, finding the flies painted by well-known artists on their portrait paintings is an engaging activity with many opportunities to reflect on the “why” question.  Why did these artists paint flies and what meaning can be ascribed to them? The answers have modern analogues and might surprise you with their current relevance! Enjoy reading more about flies in famous paintings in the article below.

In Sum

Our children need us to help them process our complex and difficult world.  With school interruptions and now online, hybrid or in person learning which works in varying degrees with different students, we need to take affirmative steps to give students the tools to manage what they are seeing and hearing day in and day.   out.  We cannot assume that our not talking about what is occurring will make it go away.  Indeed, we do way better processing with children and at a time like this, processing feelings could not be more important.   Taking the time to turn the debates into teachable moments will help our children understand their feelings and then be more able to be ready, willing and able to learn.  At a time like this in our nation, turning any of the negative or difficult moment or events into teachable moments is a positive.   And, The Feeling Alphabet Activity Set, adapted to different settings, is one tool that can make these teachable moments possible.

Share your thoughts if you try this and we’d welcome including your suggestions so other educators can learn from you.  

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