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What High School Debate Can Do For Gen Z

by David Muhammed
March 11, 2019

This interview with David Muhammad, an economics, international relations and world studies teacher at Shawnee Mission East, was conducted and condensed by frank news. 

If you’re going to be a social studies teacher you have to be having tough conversations, or what's the point? History and everything else is debatable. It's all subjective to some extent. Who won and who lost. It's easy to be monotone in the voice because everybody is reading the same books. Sometimes they address things that are really prevalent, and we don't create space for kids to talk about it. We act like it's not as important as it is. Or that that energy doesn't exist. When we ignore those individuals, it boils over to physical or emotional acts, as opposed to intellectual.

The debates you saw for the Confederate Flag, that was actually a combination of myself and some of the journalism students wanting to have a debate over a hot button topic. Initially we wanted it to be a couple of students who were pro-Confederate Flag and a couple of students who were anti. They wanted a teacher who was pro-Confederate Flag and a teacher who was anti. They knew that I was anti.

When we had discussions to figure out how it was going to look, we came to the conclusion that it'd be more beneficial to have an open debate where anybody could come during the hall period, where students can travel and see teachers. We posted on social media that we were going to be having this discussion, got the word out, and they all showed up to my classroom. It wasn't like they were all my students.

I had questions I was going to ask to make sure to give a voice to both sides, and set some ground rules in regards to how we were going to act. It was just very organic. That was the first one we did. The next one after that we did for Kaepernick and the kneeling situation, we did one for gun rights.

I think what it proves is that when you give people a space that can be respected, and you give them respect, they will act accordingly.

It helped that it was in an academic environment, so there was already a level of respect for the space. Then, the fact that I was very conscious of giving each side a chance to speak, we looked for voices for both sides that were intelligent. Sometimes it's really easy to lean things one way and make the other side look bad, but we tried to actively find students who we knew for the Confederate Flag but had some intelligence about why they were supporting it.

It wasn't going to be an argument and to bring their friends – that was the goal. That's always been the goal, to try to highlight the intelligence on both sides and give them a chance to hear each other. It's been successful. I think people are uncomfortable being uncomfortable, but if you let them know that's how growth happens, a lot of times it's a very rewarding experience.

Do you watch political debates with your students?

It depends on the class. When I taught government, we did watch debates. We've watched State of the Union addresses in some of my classes. I teach an International Relations class and we watch the UN General Assembly. We get to current events and do current events research. I make them do a lot of understanding all sides of the argument. Unless it's a presidential season, we don't necessarily watch a lot of those debates – but we do discuss the divisiveness within our country right now. That comes up a lot.

It feels like every speech is trying to make the other side look bad. We discussed, in my International Relations class, the Cohen testimony that happened last week.

I think they're very conscious of the energy that's out there.

How do you teach productive debate? That's respectful but effective, and focused on the argument?

If you look at debate teams, they research. It's not about what they feel, it's about what side they chose to argue. It's their job to do as much research about that side as possible. When I first started, it was trial and error. I'd say "Okay. If you agree with this argument you're on this side. If you disagree, you're on this side." Often times it turned into one student who has a really strong opinion, and not everybody else's voices. Or scaring everybody else off. I thought "Okay, that's not very effective."

Now what I do, especially in my International Relations and US History classes, is start off by having them write down their feelings about a subject. I'll ask all the questions I'm going to ask initially, my big questions. I have them take some time to just write it out. That right there lowers the emotionalism of it, because they have to think. They have to be intellectual. If you just go right into the question and get them to try and argue, they're not going to have enough time to process their thoughts, and they're going to turn to emotionalism. Having them write has a really big effect.

Really all they have to do when it comes to the conversation is read out their points. Then I'll split them into small groups because it's less intimidating. I put them in small groups of four or five, and say "Okay, now discuss within your groups." Finally, by that point, their confidence is up, they've heard other people's arguments, they don't feel detracted or discouraged by having an opinion because they might have heard someone else validate their opinion, or they hear some more things they can think about and then we share out loud. It becomes more of a research conversation as opposed to a debate.

Could I call it debate? Absolutely. But I don't want that vibe, because it's become like that in our country, where a debate is you arguing your point and not listening to the other side.

By making them do research and by making them write it out to get the emotions out of it, I think it creates a higher academic setting, and one that's a lot more respectable.

Do you feel teaching research and communication this way should be happening on a much larger scale? Your classroom is special, and students have a really unique response to you as a teacher. 

I think it's necessary for the survival of our society, from an ethical standpoint. The whole point of democracy is being able to have the space for the citizens to say, "We don't like this" and knowing how to say it in a way where their voices can be heard respectfully.

I think that it's necessary if we want to have a society where we can challenge things that we don't feel stand up to our ethics, and challenge things that we feel like are not healthy for the greater good of humanity. We have to know how to speak our piece with intelligence and with intellect. We've got to get past this point where if I'm a Democrat, then I have to agree with everything all the Democrats say, and oppose everything Republicans say.

Creating these gang mindsets where it's us against them, people don't even know what they actually believe in. They're not even for what they say they claim to believe.

We have to create a higher standard. If you understand why you believe what you believe, it will be a lot easier for people to see it from the other side because you're strong in your faith. I'm a Muslim and sometimes I've met people that don't want to hear anything I have to say about Islam, almost like they're afraid that they hear it, I might try to convert them.

You should have your faith. I know what I believe, and me hearing about some other faith isn't going to shake my faith. It's just going to solidify what I already believe. You shouldn't be afraid. I think a lot of people are afraid of being exposed to what they don't know.

There is so much research and polling that goes into trying to understand what Millennials and Gen Z want. Adults are trying so hard to talk to young people. What’s your feeling about how your students see our current political climate?

Excuse my language, but they think it's all bullshit.

You know what I mean? Honestly. You have to recognize with young people, they are in a snapshot portrait. All they see is the remnants of everything that happened. So for instance, with Cohen last week, most of the kids did not watch even an hour of that. They saw the five minute recap, or the headline on Twitter as they scrolled to watch some other crazy video. If all they're seeing is constant low intellect, high emotion, irrational remnants of this stuff, they don't want to be involved. They don't want to vote. They don't want to have anything to do with it, because to them it's like "Oh my God, what's the point? I'll just stick with whatever side my parents are already on." That's what we see, a detached society, because we're not modeling mature adult behavior.

Of course, you have kids who are really into politics and they're different, but the majority of these kids, they're just over it all. It gives them something to ignore. We, as a society, have to start looking at what example we are setting for them, because I think it does effect their subconscious and it makes them just say "Well, I'm just going to pick this side because it's easier that way. I'm already over here. I don't have to think. I'm just going to go with the flow because I don't want these problems. I don't want any drama." That's really what I've been feeling.

I was talking about Trudeau in Canada in my International Relations class, and I said to them "Do you guys understand why this could be a problem?" They're just looking at me like "No. Why should I care?" I'm like "Okay. Break it down. Now our country's a little bit unstable politically, the last thing we need is our neighbor to the north being politically unstable. Could you see a particular problem with that?" The look they gave me was like "Why are you talking to me about this?" I had an out-of-body experience. I'm so passionate about it, and they were like "This is stupid." I could see why though. I could see why they would feel that way because to them it's just more of the same. "Okay, another guy's going to resign. What's the difference between him and Cohen and everybody else resigning?"

What matters to them is that 21 Savage almost got deported. That's important. J Cole's new video just came out. That’s important.

Influence still rests on pop culture.

Absolutely. That's why it's so crucial we have voices like J Cole, because that's who they listen to. They barely listen to me. I get a lot of credit from teachers saying I got a way that appeals to kids, but I also understand it only goes so far. I'm still their teacher. One of the reasons I have been able to cross into their lane, where they feel like they can feel comfortable with me, is because I get the fact that their culture outweighs all this other stuff. The culture that they're in is much heavier. That's what they're watching, that's what they're paying attention to.

They're in my world watching "The Bachelor" in between doing my assignment about World War II.

Oh my god.

The work is getting done, but it's not setting in because they're thinking about who's going to be kicked off.

To them, the politics really just becomes another show to watch or not watch.

It's just another thing because they're overly bombarded constantly. Twitter, Instagram, new this, new that. It's just constant. So they're like "Oh, you know. It's just another thing."

That's crazy.

Yeah. You can't really blame them though. We kind of created the monster.

You can't blame them. I was just thinking how much of this is unique to their generation? Because I guess I hated everything in high school too. But I was pretty much cooked before reality TV became a part of the culture I live in. I was already 18 when the Kardashians came on. I can enjoy it, but I'm not overwhelmed by it.

Yeah. I graduated high school in 2003, so that was before Facebook. I think our situation is really different because we didn't really know anything that was going on. You didn't have access. There were no cell phones, there wasn't a Twitter, you didn't really watch the news. I didn't even know what the World Trade Center was when 9/11 happened. I had no idea what it was.


Never heard of it. You know what I'm saying? These kids, they have more access, they're more knowledgeable about more things, I just think they don't care as much because we don't give them the space to have time to care. That's why the discussions are really important. When Eric Garner was choked out by the police, I remember showing my kids the video. They were like "Why are we not discussing this?" I realized in that moment it's because we don't give them the space to discuss it. Use the curriculum, keep moving, go to Chemistry class, do this, do that. They don't have space for it. I give them that space and when I do, some amazing things come out. A lot of people say it's like debate.

You were right to note that everything is sliced and repacked. They aren't watching one hour of the Cohen testimony, they're watching the highlight reel. That makes a lot of sense to me. There are entire companies whose business model is to distill news down into Instagramable, SnapChatable segments.

Yeah. Vox.

Totally. Are we supposed to say "oh, that's what you want, that's what we're going to give you" or should we challenge that and say "Well here's something educational that gives you more space, that gives you more time" and challenge them to rise and go deeper than what they're used to?

I think we do both. I do think it's a problem that we always cater to, "Well, this is what they want so this is how you have to give it to them."

At some point they're not going to want anything. We have to understand that some of what they want is only a product of what we created. My students in my school and my entire district, they all have MacBooks. They all have MacAirs. That's just part of the classes. They all have access to the computers, which is great because kids couldn't afford computers who now have access, I want them to research something very quickly they have access, but they also access Netflix and YouTube. That's just wasting their time. Before those came around, I didn't have the same focus level issues that I do now. It creates this access, but it came to a point that it drowned their minds and that’s hard to get around. I think what we're seeing is that part of the reason why they don't want to hear about it is because it's boring. When I was a kid, I was bored by it too. I think it's all about how it's presented. It's not sexy enough right now. You know what I mean?

We need a West Wing reality show.

Yeah. Absolutely. Or safe spaces for conversations that are led by athletes and entertainers and stop trying to have these old guys like me, I'm 34 but I'm becoming old to them. Imagine how effective it would be. I know he's not intellectually stimulating enough, but if Lil Pump was somewhat intellectual. You have Lil Pump and Blue Face and Taylor Swift all having a discussion about politics. Could you imagine how phenomenal that would be? Kendrick Lamar and J Cole. It would be so phenomenal. The impact that that would have.

We saw it with Obama. We had Diddy and Jay-Z saying "Get out and vote" and that was a very simple thing. It wasn't even having and intellectual conversation, but what turned me on to some of these higher level thinkers, was watching Lupe Fiasco on Instagram. It made me be like "okay I want to go read this book." But that's because I could see myself in them. I can kind of see myself in Cory Booker I guess, but beyond that some of these guys I wouldn't want to even hang out with. I don't want to hear what you have to say. I watch it because I'm interested in the conversation now, but I've evolved to that point.

What got me was seeing people who looked like me and spoke my language. It might come across cheeky at first, but empower the youth. Saying, "You know what, what do you think? We're going to put you in the space. We're going to empower you to figure it out for yourself. This is what I want you to research and we're not going to tell you how to do it, we want to see what you come up with. Show us the new way."

I think let the kids create what it looks like to them. I want you guys to learn about this, but I know I'm boring and I know that this way is boring, and you guys are telling me that you're bored. So you figure out how you want to learn it. What will work for you? Then see where they take us. Or we're going to lose them.

I can send out a tweet that can go viral in two minutes. How is it that we're not taking that and having a conversation? There is no reason in the world. Our president models the worst behavior, but you can't even blame him because CNN and Fox highlight everything he says. They're giving him credit. They give him the platform. The kids find out that scandal is what gets you on. By doing something shady or saying something controversial, you’re going to get more followers. “Even if people hate me, they still follow me, and I get money. I'm an Instagram influencer because I have a million followers for saying terrible things about people."

That's so disappointing and dark, but true.

On the other end, there's positive. There's good out there, we just have to find it. I've seen some amazing stuff getting out on social media that brings people together.

When the Confederate Flag debate went viral this summer, I went "Okay, let me take this platform and have them lead discussions." Some of the responses were amazing. Just to see when people have a chance to talk, they will say some beautiful things.

I think you're in an invaluable position to have influence over these kids, but also to be influenced by them and see what they're feeling and what they're thinking, and meeting them where they're at. We can talk to to them without it feeling like old people trying to be young.

We don't need Bernie Sanders to come out sagging. We need Bernie Sanders to find someone who looks like the kids who he wants to appeal to. I don't understand why Democrats and Republicans can be so stupid. They get up there and they try to be sociable. Nobody's going to believe this. Go find somebody in some of these kids' communities that speak their language and we will believe you. Stop trying so hard.

Stop trying so hard! We can tell.

It's disrespectful to kids' intellect. They think they’re stupid. Young people are so stupid that they're not going to see through it. But kids can spot real from fake a lot faster than adults can. They judge me every day. Like "What's wrong with you? What's up with your facial expression? Why you wearing that?" I'm like "Damn."

100 percent.

They see right through you. Stop trying to be cool. Sometimes I'll make a joke and they're like stop trying to be cool I'm like "Alright. You got me."