I’m Erin Dealey, and I write books for kids. I’m a teacher, presenter, rhymer, blogger, and proud Drama Mama.

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Hohoho– “It is resolved that DECK THE WALLS teaches kids bad manners.” *Using DEBATES to teach Close Reading!

December 8, 2013

I had the pleasure of presenting at the California Reading Association’s PDI again this past November, to a packed house of AMAZING EDUCATORS, including the innovative crew from Loomis Grammar School, recipients of the 2013 California Exemplary Reading Program.

California Reading Association

Everyone participated in one or more of my FLUENCY GAMES & SONGS for Common Core and at the end of my session I proposed a re-invention of one of my favorite classroom activities:


Confession: OK, OK–I admit that I was trying to find a way to mention my new holiday book, DECK THE WALLS, in my presentation when I came up with this idea initially but…still… it works! And it’s fun for kids of all ages. (Especially the ones who LOVE to ARGUE.)

“But wait–,” you say. “Aren’t we supposed to be teaching Common Core, Project Based Learning, and Close Reading?”

Yes, Virginia–but it doesn’t have to be tedious and boring….

DEBATES address the following Common Core English Language Arts and Literacy Anchor Standards:

Standard 1: Teams must find evidence in the text.

Standard 2:. Team must delve into the author’s message.

Standard 3: Teams may address characters’ feelings.

Standards 4–6: Teams may find evidence in craft and structure.

Standards 7–9: Teams will integrate knowledge and ideas.

Nice, huh?

“But aren’t DEBATES for older kids?” you ask.

Nope. Adjust the speaking times a bit (see below) and coach them through in the following demo and you’ll have them hooked–at any age.

In fact, right before my CRA presentation, I discovered an article by Thom Markham, The Challenges and Realities of Inquiry-Based Learning, On CUE Magazine, Fall 2013, p. 18-19, wherein Markham says he introduced debates to his SECOND GRADERS.


According to Nancy Boyle’s article for ASCD (Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development): “Closing in on Close Reading“, Dec. 2012/Jan 2013, “We can’t wait until middle school to teach close reading.”


DEBATES teach listening, controlled argumentation, persuasive argument, evidence, cross-disciplinary understanding, presentation, and technology. That’s a lot of educational food groups, my friends. Not to mention the fact that they’re fun.

Thus, I hereby urge you to try this activity.

DEBATES as a springboard to Close Reading (for all grades)

Step 1: Choose a book the whole class has read recently–from picture book to YA.

Step 2: Brainstorm a topic for debate.



Topic: “It is resolved that the Big Bad Wolf was framed.”

WONDER by R.J.Palacio

Topic: “It is resolved that, ‘Your deeds are your monuments.’” (inscription on an Egyptian tomb/from Mr. Browne’s precepts)

DECK THE WALLS by Erin Dealey

Topic: “It is resolved that DECK THE WALLS teaches kids bad manners.”

(*Pick me–pick me–pick me! We had hilarious results with this at the CRA PDI.*)

Step 3: Select two kids for each team and introduce the debate terminology–


The teams will speak in this order: (adjust times for your specific age group)

First Affirmative–2 minutes

First Negative–2 minutes

Second Affirmative–1 minute

Second Negative–1 minute

Two minute “RECESS” to prepare Rebuttals.

Rebuttal order: (Allow anywhere from 30 seconds to 2 minutes each for speakers, depending upon age level. )

2nd Affirmative–2nd Negative–1st Affirmative–1st Negative

Step 4: (Yes–I borrowed this from TV Game shows and not from formal debate procedure.) Each team may pick one “Phone a Friend” helper (especially for the lower grades) who will stand behind the team (thus out of the pressure-filled limelight) and offer ideas, evidence, persuasive points via notes only–NO TALKING unless the teams are in Rebuttal RECESS.

Step 5: Preparation–Once teams are formed, each team gets to work developing their argument for or against their topic; scour the selected book for evidence to support the argument; brainstorm what the opposition might bring up and find evidence to prove them wrong; write up notes for their speeches to present their cases.

LOWER GRADES VARIATION: *For the DECK THE WALLS demo at CRA, I gave teams 5 minutes to re-read the book and prepare. If you use this with upper grades–and thus more in depth novels–give them more time to prepare.

Step 6: (Here’s where we sneak in the close reading–bahaha!) Guide teams to go beyond the story with questions such as:

  • The author repeats the phrase “Fa-la-la” throughout the book. Why does the author do this? What effect do these falala’s have on the meaning og the story? (Standard 4/ use of language) Does it make the voice or tone formal or informal?
  • Why do you think the author uses a traditional holiday carol to tell the story? How would the story be different if it were not sung? (Standard 5/text structure)
  • What is the narrator’s point of view about family by the end of the book? What is the evidence? When does the narrator’s point of view change? (Standard 6/ point of view)
  • For picture books: What clues do the illustrations give you?
  • This article by Nancy Boyles from ASCD/Educational Leadership will give you more ideas to guide the teams, depending upon the book selection.

Step 7: Let the games begin!

“Hold the phone!” you say. “My kids won’t be able to talk that long!”

Fear not, dear educators–Behold a detailed explanation of the duties of each team member. adapt as needed:

  1. First Affirmative : 2 minutes *Introduces team and states the topic. Example: “Hello, I’m Sally Smart and I am First Affirmative; This is my partner Irving Intelligent, Second Affirmative. We are for the topic, ‘It is resolved that DECK THE WALLS teaches kids bad manners.’” First Affirmative uses the rest of the time allotted to:
  2. Briefly outline all the facts and reasons their team will cover to prove their point.
  3. Give a detailed, organized, persuasive explanation of the AFFIRMATIVE side of the topic.
  4. Summarize and restate the AFFIRMATIVE opinion of the topic.

First Negative: 2 minutes–following the same order as above for the NEGATIVE side: ie–“We are against the topic, ‘It is resolved that DECK THE WALLSteaches kids bad manners.‘”

Both 2nd Affirmative and 2nd Negative must:

  1. Jot down notes (while your opponent speaks) about facts they mention that you can disprove.
  2. Remain SILENT when others–your team mate or your opponents– have their turn.
  3. Begin your part of the debate by persuasively tearing your opponents’ case apart and proving them wrong.
  4. Bring up facts that your opponent forgot to bring up or avoided.
  5. Repeat facts brought up by your partner that should be emphasized.
  6. Wrap up the case and make your final statement powerful.

REBUTTALS are the last chance to prove your point.

During the Rebuttal recess, students work with their partners to select facts and opinions that are most damaging to their opponents’ case. To prepare ahead of time, teams should brainstorm points the opponents might bring up and have on hand notes and facts that could disprove these points if necessary.

“How to evaluate them?” you ask?

May I suggest the following:

5pts Correct introduction and statement of topic.

5pts. Partner #1 talks for 2 minutes—no more, no less!

5pts. Partner #2 talks for 1 minute—no more, no less!

5pts. Rebuttals are well organized and the time is used wisely.

5pts. Correct debate procedure is followed: NO TALKING out of turn, or to team partners while opponent is speaking.

15 pts. Team notebook contains required information.

40 points total

Extra credit: I like to have the rest of the class take notes during the debate so that they can “vote” for Most Persuasive” by writing a paragraph that supports their opinion. The team with the most “votes” –in correct persuasive paragraph format–earns 5-10 pt. extra credit. (Sneaky, huh?)

SPECIAL HOLIDAY OFFER: If you try this debate with DECK THE WALLS, let me know how it goes. Classes who send me a video to post on my blog will win a FREE author Skype to be scheduled after the holidays.


Meanwhile, THANK YOU TEACHERS AND LIBRARIANS for ALL you do for your students.

Never doubt how much you are appreciated.

Never forget what a difference you make in young lives. (And parents too!)

Happy Holidays to all —

and to all a good book!

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