Monday, May 21, 2012

Interview with a 4th Grade Debate Coach

Ms. Kenisha Hawthorne, the fierce and energetic 4th grade teacher at Cole Elementary has been truly gifted with the ability to teach. If asked to describe her in one word, it would be "passionate"! I would say that she has a sixth sense when it comes to teaching. She has the remarkable ability to get her students to not only absorb knowledge, but to also believe in themselves. This young teacher is not just feeding America’s next generation important academic lessons, but she is building leaders in her classroom. Her students absolutely believe they can change their lives, communities and world. Why do they believe this? These students believe because Ms. Hawthorne pours into them, believes in them and pushes them. There is no such thing as a lost cause in Ms. Hawthorne’s class. She, beyond a question, wants her students to not only succeed in the classroom, but in life. That is why I believe she has devoted extra time into helping develop one of the Metro school districts first ever 4th grade debate teams.

The Debate team has allowed students to gain access to an array of skills for example: healthy study habits, confidence building, public speaking, social development, research skills, and so much more. Thanks to Ms. Hawthorne and her team of debate coaches, the students have without a doubt benefited from this new elementary school debate program.

4th Grade Cole Elementary Debate Team 2012
Stay tuned tomorrow for more specifics about the Cole Elementary debate program and read firsthand what some of the 4th students in the program had to say about it. In the mean time, Ms. Hawthorne was kind enough to take the time for an interview, where she tells us a little about the birth and the expectations of the elementary debate program!

Interview with 4th Grade Teacher and Debate Coach Ms. Kenisha Hawthorne

Q: Why start a 4th grade debate team?
A: After watching The Great Debaters, I found myself wondering why I hadn’t had the opportunity to do something like this as a child or teenager.  As a child I remembered being a very inquisitive, as well as somewhat talkative and some might even say I had a “smart mouth”.  I particularly noticed the skills they worked on while training for a debate….critical thinking, note taking, fluency, public speaking, writing, etc. All skills we attempt to teach our students on a daily basis during our 90 minute reading block.  What I noticed is when the debaters were immersed in the thinking, processing, and literature learning and thinking had no other choice but to happen. They found a connection to the topic in their real life rather they agreed on the topic or not. During this time I knew I would start a debate team for 4th graders.  I went to Mr. High and told him I wanted to start a team, however, I wasn’t able to get it up and running in 2010-2011.  I did however teach a lot of the strategies for debate in my own classroom.  That year my students were able to participate in a mock trial, where Goldilocks was put on trial for breaking and entering, property damage, and theft.  During this preparation of this the student were taught persuasive writing, and how to formulate questions to prove your point.  Not only did the students enjoy themselves, my ultimate goal of critical thinking, public speaking, and research was proven to be something 4th graders could do and actually enjoy it. After seeing these students excel in this activity, I knew it was time to attempt my vision of starting a debate team.  Again, in 2011 I presented a proposition to my principal, he gave me the go ahead and today we have 22 4th graders participating in this pilot program.

Q: What do you believe the students take away from the debate program? 
A: I believe each child has walked away with something very different based on their need.  Some of the children were chosen to build confidence, because they were inquisitive, and many other reasons.  However, my goal as a fourth grade teacher was for them to walk away with better writing skills, critical thinking skills, improved public speaking skills, and just more confidence in their abilities.  I truly believe all of them have improved in all these areas.

Q: Do you believe this first year of 4th grade debate club students have performed or succeed expectations?
A: They have truly exceeded my expectations.  I have seen so many individual miracles that it makes me even more excited to work with the next group of 4th graders.

Q: Do you think more schools should offer such programs as debate?
A: Absolutely!  I believe that every child should have the opportunity to experience debate.  If not on a debate team, teachers can even use these skills in a classroom setting.

Q: As a teacher was it worth all the extra work?
A:  It was worth every minute.  I got to see my students have fun learning, be challenged, and “get it”.  That’s exactly what I do in my class daily.

Q: Tell us about your team of coaches? 
A: The other two coaches on the team are awesome!  Shewanna Buchanan is also a 4th grade teacher at Cole.  She has taught over 10 years.  She has not only been a coach on the team, she is a friend and mentor.  She is known as the “nice one”.  Shewanna has been so supportive with this vision that I know I could not have done it without her.  Mykah Stuible is a speech therapist at Cole.  What better person to have as a coach than a speech therapist.  She was very helpful with making the children aware of their voice.  Through her coaching the students learned to use their volume, enunciation, and listening skills.  This was my first year working with “Mrs. S.”, and I sure hope it isn’t the last.  She was truly phenomenal.

Q: How can parents, schools, and the community better support such programs as debate?
A: We had a great group of parents this year.  Even when they could not come to practice, I could tell through conversation with my students that they openly talked about debate and their topics at home.  This was the best things for the students.  It allowed them to see that their parents and school had a partnership in their learning.  I would love to see other 4th and 5th grade classes from other schools get involved in this movement. This can easily be done by simply contacting me at  There are so many people who could assist in the community…lawyers, teachers, news reporters, store owners, parents, grandparents, neighbors, etc.  I’m sure we can find a place for their talents and/or influence to be used to help these students. They can do this through volunteering their time to practice with the students or even debate against them. They can donate funds and snacks for the students.

Q: Have you been impressed by the level of research that 4th grades have been able achieved on their debate topics this year? 
A: I have been.  The most challenging part has been teaching them how to decipher through information that is not needed and information that would benefit the point they are trying to prove, which is exactly why we are learning to debate.

Q: All in all do you think the students benefit from having a debate team?
A:  I do believe they have.  Most of them have visited their middle schools for next year and one of the first things they asked is “Do you all have a debate team here?”.  The ones that do not should be prepared for them to try and start one because they definitely want one and believe it or not I think they need one.

Q: I just have to say these groups of students on this year’s debate team seem like a close knit group.
A: They look out for each other and help one another. Do you think that is a benefit of being on a team?  That exactly what being a team is all about.  Everyone on this team has a special gift and talent. Even as individuals, they have to know they will always be able to benefit from each other. This is a lifelong lesson, that even I am continuing to learn. 

Q: The final debate was May 10th what were your expectations that day?
A:  I was expecting my students to walk away from the debate knowing they had done their absolute best…win or lose.  They did exactly that.  Along with 14 Top Speaker Awards and 1 team winner both rounds.  I must say they have encouraged me to do it another year…bigger and better!

To view Ms. Hawthorne's own blog and online resume you may click HERE or on her name anywhere throughout the blog.


Anonymous said...

I'm a 4th Grade teacher. I'm interested in teaching my students about how to carry out a debate and creating an essay along with it. What is the first step in creating a debate? Could you tell me some key vocabulary words that I could get started with in my class?

Anonymous said...

Please feel free to email me at I would be happy to share our journey and the things we used to get debated started with 4th graders. I look forward to hearing from you!

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