One of my favorite activities we do in 7th grade is our exploration debate. We have this debate after we spend several weeks learning about exploration--both from the explorers and the Native Americans' perspectives. We read primary source documents, such as those found in Howard Zinn's A People's History of the United States, we analyze different statistics about death and disease totals, and we learn about the motivations of the explorers of the 15th and 16th century.
After learning about exploration, students were then tasked with coming up with research-based answers to the questions: How was exploration GOOD? and How was exploration BAD? Students had to come up with research and arguments for BOTH sides of the question, was exploration good or bad, because they didn't know what side they'd be arguing for on debate day. Students spent a couple days working on their debate note sheet where they used the different readings and resources we've studied to come up with their arguments for both good and bad.
When the day of the debate came, students picked out of a hat what side they'd be on for the debate, and the used that side of their debate notes to help them during the debate. We set the classroom up with two sides of tables facing each other: one side was for those arguing that exploration was good, the other side was for those arguing that exploration was bad. We went over some rules for the debate, specifically things about arguing respectfully (no name calling), no interrupting, no "hogs" or "logs" (i.e. everyone must participate as equally as possible), and using your note sheet as a guide.
I had done this debate two years ago, and remembered that the students enjoyed it. Well, nothing could have prepared me for this year; this group of 7th graders completely blew me out of the water with not only their knowledge of exploration, but their arguing skills and determined effort to make their point stand out and be heard. I just sat back and smiled at them and all of their awesome points they were making--a lot of them were points they had researched on their own and we hadn't even covered in class!
Overall, each class' debate was different than the last, but still overwhelmingly informative and "spot on" for what a debate should be. Yes, the debate did get heated (i.e. there was a lot of screaming that had to be toned down so Mr. Ryan's class next door could continue and didn't get drowned out by the furious debaters in my room :), but it was all in great spirits for what we were covering. At one point a student even got up to use our giant wall map as a reference point for the point he was trying to make (awesome!!). All in all this was an awesome debate across all classes (and all students participated!!) and I hope we can do more debates in the future that have the same outcome as this.