The Great Debaters: Planning Materials

Over the next several days, I will post an entire unit I wrote, inspired by the Denzel Washington film (he directed and stars as the story’s protagonist, the peripatetic poet and teacher Melvin TolsonThe Great Debaters. on the real-life subjects of that fine film. My original intention was to teach this unit every February in observation of Black History Month. For reasons that involve a long and frustrating story, I was only able to use these materials a couple of times. I’ve parceled them out in dribs and drabs over the years.

I cannot think of better time than now, while students and parents are homebound during this pandemic, to post this unit in its entirety. There are eight lessons in all. I should note, as I do at some length in the unit plan, and as the unit’s title–“Seminar on Prior Knowledge”–that one of the purposes of this unit is to demonstrate for students how learning happens. I want them to understand who the main characters are in “The Great Debaters” before watching the movie. This leads students to understand why it is important for all learning to possess as large a fund of prior knowledge as they can manage to accumulate, or find on their own with the numerous, powerful knowledge-gathering tools–the smartphone is Cold War computing power in the palm of one’s hand–now at our disposal.

In the event that you want to revise or otherwise adapt this unit to your students’ needs, let me start by posting the planning materials for this unit. First, here is the unit plan. This is the lesson plan template. If you want to build some new context clues worksheet for this unit, here is the worksheet template for that. Similarly, here is the worksheet template for building new reading comprehension worksheets for each lesson. This list of definitions for the context clues worksheets already embedded in each lesson will help that part of each lesson proceed without a hitch. Here is a squib on Wiley College, which is at the center of this heroic story, which I grabbed from that institution’s website. Finally, here is another squib on Historically Black Colleges and Universities that I wrote myself and synthesized from a variety of sources, including my own knowledge of these schools; it’s meant to be inserted just about anywhere along the way in this unit.

If you find typos in these documents, I would appreciate a notification. And, as always, if you find this material useful in your practice, I would be grateful to hear what you think of it. I seek your peer review.

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