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September 4, 2012

Understanding and hosting a post-presidential debate – Lesson Plan


Law, Government, Civics

Estimated Time

Two class periods

Grade Level

9-12th grade


The objectives of this lesson are analysis of campaign issues, and introduction (with practice) of formal debate procedures and elements of logic.


Students watch one of the 2012 debates on television, and then hold a debate of their own focusing on the major issue that emerges from that debate. Eight students on the two debate teams compose arguments and practice debating. The rest of the class reviews the history of Presidential debates and learns Logical Fallacies and Techniques of Persuasion, which are practiced using actual debate statements by John F. Kennedy, Ronald Reagan, and Bill Clinton. On debate day, the class members choose the winning team and try to catch debaters in logic errors.


Many Americans have not made up their minds about whom to vote for and the upcoming presidential and vice presidential debates will help them decide. Explain to your students that often viewers react to a candidate’s performance– how they look and act instead of what they say. This activity is designed to help them focus on what the candidates say and then look at how the media covers the debate and the consequent effect on public opinion.


Before the debate
  1. Pass out the ballot based on the National Forensic League’s public forum debates, and explain that this will help them focus on the substance of the debate instead of just the style.
  2. Encourage them to take notes– writing down each question and how the candidates answer it. These notes will be useful when the students are asked to defend the scores they give to the debaters. Remind them that the entire debate will be on the NewsHour’s Vote 2012 Web site the day after the debate, so they can listen to the audio version in RealAudio format of the debate if they want to replay key exchanges.
  3. Suggest that the students refrain from watching “analysts” or “experts” on TV– or read any post-debate analysis until after they have filled out their own ballot.
After the debate
  1. The day after the debate, go over the ballots in class. Are the ratings consistent or not? Students can discuss their ratings and use the RealAudio or a transcript on the Web to defend their arguments.
  2. If you want, the class can write a critique of the debate and e-mail suggestions to the candidate’s Web sites. (Also to NewsHour Extra for possible publication on the Web site.)
    • Require students to watch the Presidential and Vice Presidential debates on television, and record their own and analysts’ commentary on the Debates Viewing Sheet (Handout #1). Dates are:
      • Wednesday, October 3, 2012: University of Denver, Denver, CO: Focus on Domestic Policy
      • Thursday, October 11, 2012: Centre College, Danville, KY: VP Debate: Focus on both Domestic and Foreign Policy
      • Tuesday, October 16, 2012: Hofstra University, Hempstead, NY: Town Meeting format- Focus on Domestic and Foreign Policy
      • Monday, October 22, 2012: Lynn University, Boca Raton, FL: Final Presidential Debate- Focus on Foreign Policy
    • When the next class meets, ask students to share their observations and select the ONE issue they thought was most important in the debate. You must frame the issue as a positive resolution. (Example: “The extended Bush era tax cuts are working to revive the economy,” NOT “The economy did not fall deeper into recession because of the extention of the Bush era tax cuts.” The resolution will be written onto the Political Debates Format Sheets (see below).
  3. Remind students that the emerging issues may surprise them. In 1960, no one could have predicted that a whole presidential debate would center on Quemoy and Matsu, two small islands near Taiwan.
  4. Select 8 students in each class for the debate teams. Ask each team of four to record the resolution the class has written and to select its own debate slots, on the Political Debates Format Sheets (Handout #2).
    • Note: Students who fear debating should choose Opening Statement, which can be prepared beforehand and simply read.Students more comfortable with debating can do the Rebuttal Statement. Students most confident of their ability to think quickly on their feet should choose Question Session. The most eloquent speakers should choose in the Summary slots.
  5. If you feel comfortable about doing so, ask debate team members to share their telephone numbers. It is highly motivational to a high school student to call another student in the evening, especially if you’ve mixed the sexes in assigning the teams. (When this lesson was first used, parents and students often reported that there were marathon phone calls the night before. Debaters sometimes became fast friends.)
  6. Teams will then work outside the classroom and as homework to prepare their arguments, using the Debate Arguments Template (Handout #3).
  7. While debating teams are working, review with the rest of the class the History of Presidential Debates (Handout #4) and then learn and practice (with quotes from actual presidential debates) the Techniques of Persuasion and Logical Fallacies (Handout #5).
  8. Hold the debate on the second day. While you give the debaters 5 final minutes for last minute review, distribute and go over the Political Debates Format Sheets, which are also used as the students’ ballots. Emphasize the rules at the bottom about objectivity, as well as the observers’ extra credit opportunity.
  9. Time each portion of the debate carefully, using a stopwatch. The debate itself takes 30 minutes.
  10. Allow only 5 minutes for students to mark their ballots and fill out the extra credit portion, if they wish to. Collect the ballots.
  11. Tally the ballots on the board, reading an occasional “This team won the debate because…” if there is time. Excitement is high at this point; be sure you’ve finished the tally before the bell rings!
  12. Award the winning debaters their “Debate Champion” blue ribbons (real or paper).
  13. Grade the debate ballots, using any number of points and extra credit you wish to use.

Author Syd Golston is an educational administrator, curriculum writer and historian. She taught secondary Social Studies for 20 years, wrote lessons and in-serviced teachers in 40 states as Supervisor of Education for Kids Voting USA, and serves now as Dean of Students at Alhambra High School in Phoenix, Arizona. She is a member of the Board of Directors of the National Council for the Social Studies.

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