The conversation in class after watching The Great Debaters wasn’t only gruesome. There were the debates to discuss after all, the original reason for choosing the movie. I had wanted the students to see how the arguements were put together, to see how listening to the opposing view can help you strengthen your point, to see that no one makes an argument by giving an opinion and repeating it again and again, that everyone has supporting information to back up the opinions given. Novel concept. Virtually unheard of in the discussions in my classroom.
The movie didn’t show as much of the pre-debate work as I’d hoped, and not even that many of the debates themselves … but what was shown was excellent. The final debate was shown, of course, in its entirety. And by the time it began, my students suprised me by being utterly silent and focused. they really wanted to hear it. I don’t know if they knew what ‘civil disobedience’ was before they watched that debate, but they clearly understood it afterward.
James Farmer, Jr. gave the first affirmative argument. My students were on his every word. By the time he stepped away from the podium, Jeovany was bouncing in his seat. “He killed ’em with that one, Miss,” he said. “Killed ’em.” I reminded him that it was just the start of the debate, that the Harvard team hadn’t said a word yet. So we waited while the first negative argument was made. When that debater headed for his seat, Jeovany shook his head. “He killed with that, too, Miss.”
After the movie ended, after we talked through some of the heavy stuff and were getting ready to head home, I asked what they thought about the debating. “We would never talk like that,” Valerie said. Which may or may not be true. I said I wasn’t so much interested in having them talk the way the students in the movie did, but I wanted to know what they thought of the arguments, of the ‘arguing’ itself. Everyone liked the debates. Why? “It’s the way they talk,” Jeovany said. “The words they use and the way they say them.” They acknowledged that all the studying before the debate was part of what made the arguments good. “They had all that history and stuff to show their points,” Raj said. Yes, all that stuff to support their arguments. Another novel concept. Zoraida noticed that they didn’t hesitate, didn’t say things like “I think,” or “I believe,” that they spoke as if there was only one possible opinion. “They sound like their idea is the only idea,” she said. Jeovany agreed. “They talk like they really know,” he said. “The stuff they said was strong.”
Strong words. Mmm … I like that. As we move through this post-movie week, the week of mid-term conferences, I hope they’ll think about those strong words, think about what was or wasn’t convincing or compelling and why. I hope they think about how their own words could be stronger. They may not ever want to talk like the characters in the movie, but I hope they start see that the things they do want to say can be said gorgeously and with power.