On most high school campuses, there might be only a few classes in which students can literally talk about and debate important issues ripped straight from today’s headlines.
Topics like Russia invading Ukraine. Human and animal cloning. The value of vaccines. Should the U.S. keep the penny? Is there bias in Oscar nominations and awards? Should tests determine academic futures? Why does the post office exist? Should tolerance be taught in school? Digital privacy and cyber-bullying.
These and other subjects – some weighty, some just fun – are the focus of a new class this year at Denair High School taught by instructor Jorge Ruelas. It’s called Communication and Debate, and it is open to a select group of 10 hand-picked sophomores.
The class is intended to be an incubator for the school district’s efforts to promote what Superintendent Terry Metzger calls “authentic literacy.”
“We define literate as being able to read, write and speak (and reason) proficiently in all of their classes,” Metzger explained. “That involves the four Cs: critical thinking, creativity, collaboration and communication. Students get to practice all of that in this course.”
The course was the brainchild of Metzger and Denair High Principal Kara Backman, who wanted to offer an intriguing class for young adults focusing on authentic literacy that was wrapped in rigor and high executive functioning skills.
This class of students will remain together in the Communication and Debate class until they graduate in 2024. Backman said the data collected about them will be analyzed to gauge the effectiveness of how raw authentic literacy guides the impact of presentation, language articulation and a growth mindset. The hope is that the skills developed by the students in the class can be taught on a larger scale to more Denair High students.
“Denair High School prides itself on providing a high school experience for all of our students,” Backman said. “That requires staff to provide opportunities for students to problem solve, create opinions supported by facts and present those creations in a professional, articulate manner. A growth mindset is the foundation of all literacy and implementation and must be taught at a high level. Mr. Ruelas does an amazing job with this implementation.”
Unlike most other classes, the Communications and Debate students have enormous influence on what topics will be researched and discussed.
“Every month, the goal is for students to put together a presentation that is well-researched,” Ruelas said. “Most months, it is a debate topic that students bring together from articles we have read as class. Daily, we scour the news to find topics of interest and debate the merit of the argument(s).”
Ruelas said there wasn’t a specific model from a similar class at another school he could follow. Instead, he and his students have continued to push themselves to experiment with different strategies month to month. If it works, they keep it. If it doesn’t, they try something else.
“The greatest goal was for students to be able to engage with topics that related to their specific interests and dive deeply into researching rigorous articles and research that would ultimately come together into a presentation in the form of a PowerPoint, video, debate or Podcasts,” Ruelas explained.
One of the primary purposes of the class is to open the students’ minds to topics and possibilities that they otherwise might not have been exposed to. Requiring them to deeply research those subjects and then report back to the class about what they learned is an important way to sharpen their critical thinking skills.
And despite the course name of Communications and Debate, this is not a forum to develop a competitive high school debate team. The “debating” that is done occurs only within the four walls of the classroom. Presentations can be verbal, use video or PowerPoint – whatever is the most effective way for students to share their message and influence their classmates to agree with their position.
“Ah! The art of persuasion, the delicate dance that we all partake in,” Ruelas said. “I encourage the students to test the boundaries of it in class with the subject matter we have now, so when they use it in the real world, they are fluent in its steps.”
Based on their enthusiasm, the students are thoroughly enjoying the class.
“One of my favorite things about this class is that when we look at the news together, we can have good argumentative discussions about what’s going on,” said student Lynea McIntire. “In this class, I have learned how to better give evidence, rebuttals, and claims that have helped me when discussing with my peers in other classes.
Ruelas said he talks with his colleagues about what’s happening in the class. Many of them are intrigued and have contributed potential ideas for Ruelas’ students to research and debate.
Metzger said this small group of sophomores were chosen to be academic test lab so their progress could be tracked for three years at Denair High. If things continue to go as well as they have so far, it’s possible that the teaching concepts and methods used by Ruelas could be expanded into other classrooms and other instructors.
“This is a pilot for this year,” Metzger said. “We’re excited because we see a lot of great things going on in this class. It could change how literate these students are in other content areas. The effects of what’s happening in this class are notable.”