Standard Lesson

The Great Service-Learning Debate & Research Project

9 - 12
Lesson Plan Type
Standard Lesson
Estimated Time
Five 50-minute sessions
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In this lesson, students analyze their own schooling experiences by imagining what their education would be like if service-learning was a requirement for graduation. They engage in a preliminary classroom debate—either agreeing with the proposed change in curriculum, opposing it, or taking a middle-ground stance—before they have all of the facts. From here, students research service-learning and work in groups to prepare informed debates. At the end of this lesson, students reflect on the implications of making uninformed vs. informed arguments as well as what it takes to build a strong, successful argument.

Featured Resources

From Theory to Practice

When students argue in or out of the classroom, the reasons behind their points of view are often uninformed and lacking support. In other words, students aren't always aware of why they think and feel the way they do or who exactly they're arguing with. This lesson brings to light students' problematic practice of arguing while uninformed and gives them the tools to revise their argumentative methods after becoming more aware of their audience, discussing opposing viewpoints, and conducting research to better understand the subject.

In her article, "Audience Analysis and Persuasive Writing at the College Level," Kathleen Black discusses the results of giving students information about their audience when asking them to write persuasively:

...when students were given accurate audience information (audience knowledge, values, attitudes, and goals in relation to the topic), their identifications of their own arguments, appeals, or adaptations showed a larger number and a higher average level of strategic adaptation than those of students who were not given the information. They were also judged to be more persuasive than those without that information. (246)

In other words, when students are aware of their audience (and informed about the subject about which they are arguing) they become more persuasive and in doing so more able to change people's minds. This activity places the audience literally in the same room with the students, so they will have the opportunity to study and get to know them well before their final debates.


Further Reading

Common Core Standards

This resource has been aligned to the Common Core State Standards for states in which they have been adopted. If a state does not appear in the drop-down, CCSS alignments are forthcoming.

State Standards

This lesson has been aligned to standards in the following states. If a state does not appear in the drop-down, standard alignments are not currently available for that state.

NCTE/IRA National Standards for the English Language Arts

  • 1. Students read a wide range of print and nonprint texts to build an understanding of texts, of themselves, and of the cultures of the United States and the world; to acquire new information; to respond to the needs and demands of society and the workplace; and for personal fulfillment. Among these texts are fiction and nonfiction, classic and contemporary works.
  • 4. Students adjust their use of spoken, written, and visual language (e.g., conventions, style, vocabulary) to communicate effectively with a variety of audiences and for different purposes.
  • 5. Students employ a wide range of strategies as they write and use different writing process elements appropriately to communicate with different audiences for a variety of purposes.
  • 7. Students conduct research on issues and interests by generating ideas and questions, and by posing problems. They gather, evaluate, and synthesize data from a variety of sources (e.g., print and nonprint texts, artifacts, people) to communicate their discoveries in ways that suit their purpose and audience.
  • 8. Students use a variety of technological and information resources (e.g., libraries, databases, computer networks, video) to gather and synthesize information and to create and communicate knowledge.
  • 11. Students participate as knowledgeable, reflective, creative, and critical members of a variety of literacy communities.
  • 12. Students use spoken, written, and visual language to accomplish their own purposes (e.g., for learning, enjoyment, persuasion, and the exchange of information).

Materials and Technology



This is the official website for the National Service-Learning Clearinghouse. It offers a comprehensive definition of “service-learning” and includes a fact sheet, history page, and frequently asked questions about service-learning. It also provides examples of service learning projects and lessons. Students will use this site to conduct their research in preparation for their final debate.


  1. Review the National Service-Learning Clearinghouse website and make sure you have a clear understanding of what service-learning is and how it is different from community service or volunteerism.
  2. Read and make copies of pages 5-10 of the “Middle School Students' Attitudes toward Required Chesapeake Bay Service-Learning” research article for each student in the class.
  3. Familiarize yourself with the Persuasion Map Student Interactive.  If computer access is a problem, copy a print version of the interactive for each student.
  4. Make an overhead transparency of the Hypothetical Debate Scenario.
  5. Make copies of the Reflection: Informed vs. Uninformed Argument handout for every student in the class.
  6. Acquire a computer with a projector and internet access for the first class session, and sign up for students to go to the computer lab for Sessions Two and Three so each student has access to a computer with Internet access. They will also need access to a printer during the second or third session in order to print out their Persuasion Maps.
  7. Before students arrive on the first day of this lesson, designate areas in the classroom where students will move to indicate that they are “For,” “Against,” or “Undecided” about the new service-learning requirement that the administration is hypothetically considering. You might just write these words on the board or make signs and tape them to the walls. It is important for students to physically move to the position they want to be part of so that their positions are clear.

Student Objectives

Students will:

  • discuss their opinions in order to clarify their positions on an issue.
  • read and annotate an article on service-learning in order to become more informed on the issue.
  • use a website and a print article to construct supported reasons behind their arguments.
  • work in cooperative groups to create a plan for an informed debate.
  • analyze and evaluate argument tactics in order to devise the strongest debate.
  • use research in order to debate an issue.
  • write a reflection about their process of becoming more informed and prepared to argue a point of view.

Session One

  1. Explain that the class is going to have a debate about service-learning, and show the class the Hypothetical Debate Scenario overhead. Read it aloud.
  2. Show students the designated spaces throughout the classroom for students who are “For” this change at their school, “Against” it, or “Undecided.” Ask everyone to move to the area that represents their opinion. (Note: Some students will want to know more about what service-learning is before they make a decision. Suggest that those students join the “Undecided” group for now.)
  3. Now ask students to talk in their decision groups for just a couple minutes about why they chose the group they are in. When they are finished, ask members of each group to tell the rest of the class why they chose to be “For,” “Against,” or “Undecided” about the hypothetical curriculum change. Write students’ reasons on the board or chart paper according to their groups so you can continue to refer to them.
  4. Ask students to look at the reasons listed on the board. Then ask if anyone can explain why someone should change his or her mind about one of these reasons. (For example, one student might say that s/he is against required service-learning because it sounds like a lot of work. A student from one of the other groups might argue that there’s no evidence of it being more work or that even if it is more work it sounds like more fun than sitting in class all day.)
  5. Now ask the class who thinks they know what service-learning is. Give students a chance to try to answer this question. (Note: Some students may believe that service-learning is the same thing as community service or volunteerism. If this comes up, explain that service-learning is similar to, but not exactly the same as, these activities.)
  6. Once students have hypothesized at what service-learning is, show them the “What is Service-Learning?” page on the National Service-Learning Clearinghouse website. You can show them the video (It’s a little over eight minutes long) or read the definition under the video and show them the examples of service-learning. Ask students to articulate what seems to be the difference between service-learning and community service or volunteerism.
  7. After students have had a chance to discuss what service-learning is, tell the class that they have the opportunity to move to a different group now if they would like.
  8. Once students have moved, ask for a show of hands of whose standpoint changed. Ask them to explain what changed their minds. Write their answers on the board or chart paper. (Teacher's Note: students who have already made up their minds are less likely to move to a new position, so most of the students who move tend to be from the “Undecided” group. This is something that you’ll want to point out later as an obstacle to trying to persuade people.)
  9. Explain that the class will start up at this point in the next session, so students will need to remember what positions they are currently in.

Session Two

  1. Have students return to the positions they ended up in at the close of class time in the previous session, and ask each group to briefly remind everyone of why they agree, disagree, or are undecided about the curriculum change.
  2. Ask the students:
    • (“Against” group) what compromises they would consider that might change their minds. Write their answers on the board. (The goal is to help them think metacognitively about their opinions, but the goal is also to help them come up with possible compromises to the proposed change in curriculum. If students need help going in that direction, you might ask them what would need to change about the proposal in order for them to agree to it.)
    • (“Undecided” group) what they need to know or understand better in order to make a decision about this issue. Write their answers on the board.
    • (Full class) what everyone noticed about who moved and who didn’t when they had a chance to change their minds. (Often it is mostly the “Undecided” students who change their minds.)
    • (Full class) what they think this means when it comes to trying to change someone’s mind about an issue. (Basically, it’s harder to change someone’s mind if they think their mind is already made up, even if they are fairly uninformed about the issue at hand. So an individual’s decision to change his or her mind is often psychological/emotional rather than rational.)
  3. Based on these findings, discuss why it is problematic for people to make up their minds about an issue before they are informed about it. (They might make decisions that aren’t necessarily in their best interests or in the best interests of the people around them based on irrational thoughts and feelings.)
  4. Ask students what they think they need to know about the people they are trying to persuade in order to change their minds. (We need to understand their motivation. Why do they feel and think the way they do? What do they know about the issue? Are they fully informed? What are their wants and needs in regards to the issue? What philosophical or ideological differences might they have with you? For example, what do they believe school is supposed to be like? What, according to their view, is the goal of education?)
  5. Explain to the class that they will have another chance to debate this issue, but first you want them to educate themselves on service-learning. In the next session, students will spend the day in the computer lab.
  6. Assign students to groups and stances. Groups should be no larger than four students per group, but at least three students. Half of the groups will be assigned to research the “For” stance; the other half will be assigned to research the “Against” stance. (For example, a class with 24 students will have six groups of four students each, and three of those groups will be for the change, three against it.) You will decide who is assigned to which stance. Discuss with students that this is simply an activity to teach a concept, and they may or may not be assigned to the group that they "agree" with.
  7. Give students pages 5-10 of the research article “Middle School Students’ Attitudes Toward Required Chesapeake Bay Service-Learning.”  Ask them to read it thoroughly and highlight or underline important ideas that will help them in their research and debate over the next two days. Also, ask students to write at least three questions about this text in the margins, to be addressed at the beginning of the next session.

Session Three

  1. Before they use the computers, ask students to sit near their assigned group members so they can easily talk about their positions while they work.
  2. Ask students to take out the research article they read in the previous session and skim over the questions they wrote in the margins.
  3. Help students answer their questions about this text before moving on to research.
  4. Explain that students will be using the “Middle School Students' Attitudes toward Required Chesapeake Bay Service-Learning” research article they read for in the previous session to build a strong argument for or against the hypothetical proposed change in curriculum.
  5. Show students the Persuasion Map Student Interactive, and explain that they will use it to formulate their arguments. For the “Goal or Thesis” step, ask students to write a sentence explaining what they hope to accomplish during the debate. These maps will be turned in for credit, so make sure students can print them out at the end of the session. Otherwise, they will need to copy and paste them into a word processing document in order to save them.
  6. Each student is to come up with three reasons he or she is for or against this change in curriculum (depending on their assigned stances, regardless of students’ initial opinions) along with three pieces of support (from the article and the service-learning website). Encourage students to think of compromises and alternatives that will appeal to their opposition. What middle-ground might appeal to the most people? How do the article and website support these compromises?
  7. Let students know that if they don’t finish their Persuasion Maps today, there will be time to finish them in the next session. When they do finish, they will need to print them out so they can turn them in after the final debate in Session Four of the lesson. (Teacher's Note: The Persuasion Maps cannot be saved! If students don’t finish the whole map in this session, they must save their text by copying and pasting it into a word processing document. At the beginning of the next session, they can copy and paste all of their work back into the Persuasion Map.)

Session Four

  1. If students need more time to finish their Persuasion Maps, they can work on those during this time.
  2. When they have finished their Persuasion Maps they should meet in their small groups (3 or 4 members) to share their goals, reasons, and support with their group members. The purpose of the smaller groups initially is to keep the logistics around planning, sharing, and debating manageable, since groups larger than four aren’t generally a good idea. Ultimately, several small groups will work together to debate.
  3. Explain that each group is to elect a group representative to choose a “group goal,” from the 3 or 4 individual goals, to present during the debate. To ensure that goals aren’t repeated, group representatives will meet for the “For” and “Against” groups to choose a “group goal” for every group on their side. (Example: One of the “Against” groups might use this as their goal: Our goal is to convince people who are for the proposed service-learning curriculum to consider a compromise that would allow students to choose one class instead of three that would include service-learning. Our main reason for this is that students will more likely want to participate if they feel like they get to make the choice instead of it being imposed on them. The support to back this up was found in the article we read. It stated that students who felt like they got to make their own choices had more positive attitudes toward service-learning.)
  4. Group representatives will now meet with representatives from other groups who are also arguing their stance (“For” or “Against”). They should take all of their group members’ Persuasion Maps with them. The purpose of this meeting is for all groups who are arguing the same stance to be aware of all of the proposed goals, reasons, and support for their stance and to make decisions about how to create the strongest argument. They may find that some of the goals, reasons, and support overlap or are weaker than others, so they will need to make decisions about which goals, reasons, and support will be used during the debate and by which groups.
    • While representatives are making these decisions, the other group members can decide who will be the first speaker/presenter for each group during the debate. Each group will alternate with the opposing side, speaking one at a time.
  5. Once the representatives make these decisions, have them return to their groups and share the debate plan. (Example: If you have a class of 24 students and there are three groups arguing for service-learning and three groups against it, then the three “For” groups will need to agree on a plan for how they will try to persuade the “Against” groups to change their minds. This is what the representatives will help the groups do. All of the “For” groups will work together during the debate, as will all of the “Against” groups, taking turns giving reasons and support to back up their stance.)
  6. Once each group has decided which goals, reasons, and support to use during the debate, ask them to organize themselves in an order. Which group will give what goal, reasons, and support first, second, and third, etc.?  Students should write this order down in their notebooks or a piece of paper to keep track for themselves.

Session Five

  1. Have students arrange their desks so that the “For” groups are facing the “Against” groups. If the room doesn’t allow for that, it will work to put desks in a circle. Encourage groups to arrange themselves according to which group will go first, second, third, etc.
  2. Flip a coin to decide who will go first.
  3. Explain that students should take notes on the opposing arguments so that they can make a clear rebuttal. (Explain that a rebuttal argues against the argument that has been laid forth by the opposing side.)
  4. Opening Arguments: Each side will alternate. So if the “For” side gets to go first, they will give one goal along with reasons and support for that particular goal. Then the “Against” side will do the same. Each side will alternate this way until all groups have given their goals, reasons, and support.
  5. Rebuttal: Now the groups are ready for rebuttal. Ask students to look at the notes they have taken on the opposing side’s arguments. Tell them to raise their hands when they are ready to refute one of those arguments. When students make their rebuttals, they must briefly summarize what the opposing side said to remind everyone of the point they are arguing against. Call on students on each side, one at a time, to make rebuttals. Give each side at least three chances to rebut before moving on to the next step.
  6. Ask students to stand up and move their desks back to their usual places. Now ask them to return to the designated place they were in on the first day of the activity, either “For,” “Against,” or “Undecided.”
  7. Tell the class that they now have the opportunity to reevaluate their original position by moving to a new position.
  8. Discuss why people did or didn’t change their minds. What aspects of the final debate were most persuasive? What aspects made students want to stay put?
  9. Ask students to go back to their seats. Give them the Reflection: Informed vs. Uninformed Argument handout, and ask them to complete it thoroughly in complete sentences. Explain that students will earn credit for completing this reflection and the Persuasion Map as well as for successfully participating in both debates.
  10. Before the end of class, students should turn in their Persuasion Maps and reflections. If students don’t finish their reflections, they can finish them for homework or at the beginning of another session.


  • This lesson might be used to introduce a unit on persuasive writing. After this, ask students to choose their own issues and audiences (or choose from a list of issues and audiences provided to them) to research and argue in essay form.
  • Use this lesson as an introduction for discussing logical fallacies. Look in the encyclopedia of logical fallacies for a comprehensive list. Ask students to note what logical fallacies they noticed classmates using during their debates.

Student Assessment / Reflections

  • Take notes on students’ participation in group activities, listening for comments that reflect an understanding of the issue at hand as well as the opposing viewpoints.
  • As students are working in the computer lab, both individually and in groups, give feedback on the arguments they are formulating as a method of formative assessment. Focus on how well students use the provided sources to support their goals and reasons. Encourage them to pull out specific examples from the texts to support their arguments.
  • Check that students complete the Persuasion Map Student Interactive and the Reflection: Informed vs. Uninformed Argument handout with quality and effort. For the reflection, you are especially looking for evidence that students understand the difference between informed and uninformed arguments and that they can see differences between the arguments they began with and those they formulated after research and discussion.
  • Also, you might assess the final debate by giving each group points for their initial argument (Does it include a goal, reasons, and support?) as well as their rebuttals (Did they address the opposition’s ideas specificially?).
  • Finally, give students a chance to evaluate their group work process. Ask them to write a brief reflection on how well their group worked together and how they would do things differently next time.

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