I’ve had several teachers this fall ask about strategies that get kids more involved in talking with one another in ways that focus on content. I’ve always like the Fence Sitter activity but recently ran across something called Tennis Debates.

Kate Shuster of the Middle School Public Debate Program adapted an exercise that she saw used in Japanese classrooms to come up with the idea. I’ve not had the chance to use it with a large number of kids but it’s worked well in smaller settings. Give it a try!

I see using tennis debates:

  • as a hook to get students excited about an upcoming unit or
  • as a chance for review before an assessment or
  • as a pre-assessment to measure students prior knowledge or
  • as a way to encourage structured conversation about current events

You need to first develop a topic or statement that has clear for and against positions. Organize your students into teams of three with each team being assigned to a particular table or area. You will also need a student referee for each “match.” Before the match begins, the referee flips a coin to decide which team will be for and which will be against.

Announce your topic and write it on the board. Give teams enough time to work together to come up with arguments for their side as well as answers to arguments the other side might make.

After the preparation period is over, the Pro side “serves” with an argument for their side. Con “returns” by refuting the argument. Pro “returns” by refuting that argument. And so on. Until someone drops the ball.

A team is said to drop the ball when any of the following rules have been violated:

  • Players must respond within 15 seconds.
  • Players must not repeat a point that has already been made without adding anything new.
  • Players must use a basic Assertion-Reasoning-Evidence format to construct their arguments.
  • Players must use 4-Step Refutation when answering arguments from the other side.

Other rules include the following:

  • A team can only score a point when they have “served” the ball and the other side drops the ball.
  • If the team that serves drops the ball, the serve goes to the other side.
  • The serve rotates between players. Once you’ve served, the next serve for your team goes to the player on your left.

Kate suggests creating a “seeded” bracket where students who win their table get to participate in another round against another team. She has also created a handy instruction guide for teachers and students. Let me know how it works.

Have fun!