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The 8th grade capstone year is filled with leadership and academic rite of passages unique to The Lexington School. These challenges prepare our young adults for what’s next–high school, college, and life. One of the final projects before packing their gear for the Southwest Trip is Environmental Debates where in teams of four, students integrate science, research, and critical thinking, and communications skills to bring to the forefront the most current of environmental topics.
Jason Hurst, 8th grade Chemistry teacher, picks current topics for his students, environmental issues that are in the news right now like “Should the national park system expand or shrink?” or “Coal vs. alternative energy sources.” Keeping it current allows students to listen to new topics on the radio, see and read news that pertains to their topics, and follow real life issues in ways they typically do not.
Laura Bonzo-Sims, 8th grade English teacher works alongside Mr. Hurst to provide guidance and support on research and debate prep. She says, “The best is when I get emails and texts from students when they are in high school, long after their experience at TLS. They’ll send articles, videos, and comments here and there, when they see something that pertains to their topics from 8th grade debates.”
Dr. Bonzo starts with mini-debates in English class prior to converging with Chemistry for the final projects. The mini-debates are ungraded, and Dr. Bonzo coaches them as they debate. “It’s really a lot of fun,” she says. “They like it, and they learn so much about debate, critical thinking, logic, and research prior to the big time debates.” This year’s topics for mini-debates included positive and negative effects of reality TV, whether or not to impose a sugar tax, year round school vs. a traditional calendar, youth sports and concussions, how early to begin contact sports, and a few more.
“I love watching students during the rebuttal time. Rebuttals involve quick thinking, logic, and enough knowledge about the other team’s side to shut down major points,” says Dr. Bonzo. “I think one of the most important things they learn is how to have a thoughtful, well-informed debate rather than a baseless, generalized argument.”
In Chemistry class, debate teams work on just that. The science research that Mr. Hurst facilitates focuses on an active pursuit of real facts and figures, ones that work to form a solid opinion and argument. “The ability to curate information is a skill all students need to have as early as possible these days,” says Mr. Hurst. “There is so much research out there, facts and figures that require a lot of time to mine through and to assure accuracy.”
Back to English class. Dr. Bonzo believes “one of the most powerful things about debates is it provides an outlet for a different style of demonstrating analysis and critical thought. Students who might struggle writing a paper where they have to show the meaning of a quotation or a piece of literature get a chance to show their strengths in a different manner. Often I find that students who may have been reserved during class discussions are a force-to-be-reckoned-with during the debates.”
What about the students? How do they feel about this final capstone project? Students talk about “how nervous they are before the debates, how their hearts are pounding when the other teams asks them a direct question, how they were so proud of themselves when they delivered a rebuttal that landed,” Dr. Bonzo reports. “We always debrief after a debate and ask them to talk about the process. What we hear the most is that even though they were more nervous than they have ever been, they also felt they had accomplished something very meaningful.”
Next stop is Zion National Park and the Grand Canyon. For over a week, 61 8th graders will gather in two of the most beautiful environments in our country. They will build upon the confidence they’ve developed throughout the capstone year, through challenging projects like environmental debates, and they will forge new territory. They will stretch even further as they prepare to fly away.