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April 2 Tip of the Week – Fence Sitting

One of the best things about being a social studies teacher is that we get to discuss and argue all of these great questions.

Should we have dropped the bomb? Is it ever okay to violate the Bill of Rights? What really happened during the Gulf of Tonkin incident? Is it legal for law enforcement to search student lockers? Why did the South lose the Civil War?

The problem, of course, is finding a structure that ensures that everyone gets involved. I’ve run across a great way to encourage participation and keep the focus on content.

It’s called the Fence Sitter activity and I’ve used it with elementary kids all the up to college age. It works every time! And you can set it up to work with just about any question or problem that has two opposing sides.

The first thing to do is develop a good problem or question that the kids have to argue about. For this example, I’ll use a problem that focuses on the American Revolution. Traditional wisdom says that 1/3 of the American colonists wanted independence, 1/3 wanted to remain loyal to the king and 1/3 just wanted to be left alone.

The problem? How to get the “neutrals” to join “your” side.

The activity works like a basic jigsaw teaching strategy. Divide your class into three equal groups. Assign each of the groups to represent one of the three colonist groups. So . . . one group represents patriots, one the loyalists and the last group represents the “neutrals.”

Tell the patriots and loyalists that their goal will be to convince the “neutrals” to join their cause. Let the neutrals know what the patriots and loyalists will be trying to do and instruct them that at the end of the activity, they will be asked to vote for one or the other.

To provide a bit of “realism” and pressure, inform the class that whichever group gets the most votes will also win something – extra credit, free homework assignment, candy bars, etc. At this point, provide time and resources for the patriots and loyalists to develop a series of arguments that support their cause. These arguments will be used during the next part of the activity. Allow the neutrals group to work together in developing questions they need answered to help them decide which group to join.

After this prep period, create smaller, three person groups that each contain one patriot, one loyalist, and one neutral. The key is to make sure that each person has a chance to speak.

So . . . set up a simple schedule:
The patriot talks first for a minute followed by the loyalist who also gets a minute. Give the patriot 30 seconds of rebuttal time, with the loyalist also getting 30 seconds of rebuttal time. During these periods, only one person is talking with no questions or interruptions allowed.

Then provide two to three minutes for the neutral to be in charge. The neutral can ask anyone any question they want and both patriot and loyalist can talk as the neutral allows.

Finally give both patriot and loyalist a short chance for a final argument and the neutral a chance for final questions.

The activity ends with neutrals voting one by one for either the patriot or loyalist cause. In case of a tie, you will provide the final vote.

You can adapt the activity to your grade level and content, increase prep time or change the amount of time debating. This activity can be used as a hook to activate prior knowledge, to measure understanding during instruction or at that end of your unit to assess learning.

Whatever you do, have fun!

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