Your Mission: Teach Kids to Debate, Rather than to Diss People on Social Media

Love him or hate him, it’s hard to argue that the president sets a great example of social media use for kids.

In her breakout book, Hacking Digital Learning Strategies: 10 Ways to Launch EdTech Missions in Your Classroom, internationally-renowned presenter and education technology consultant Shelly Sanchez Terrell demonstrates precisely how to teach students to debate issues appropriately, rather than disrespect people on social media.

Here’s most of Shelly’s Teach Kids to Debate EdTech Mission from her new book, reprinted here with permission from Times 10 Publications.


Lately, the news has featured the long-standing Twitter feud between President Donald Trump and the media. The public has criticized both sides for their behavior. At one point, the argument escalated and the President tweeted a GIF of himself symbolically body-slamming CNN.

The news media took offense, claiming the GIF encouraged violence toward reporters; the Office of the President and Twitter disagreed. Tensions continue to rise.

This incident exemplifies the nature of many online arguments.

Children to adults share their opinions openly on social networks but are offended when others disagree with them. They react with aggression or resort to personal attacks. All involved seem to overlook the true issues, and all parties leave the conversation upset, learning nothing new about the topic and missing a powerful opportunity for debate to open our minds and elevate our thinking.

We need to transform the digital debating mindset and help students see debate as a vehicle to strengthen their intellect and character.

The way schools teach debate doesn’t align with how our learners conduct arguments in real life. Traditionally, we teach students to debate by writing argumentative or persuasive essays.

While this is important, our digital learners need to engage in online debates.

They need the opportunity to draft shorter arguments to share with the public, as well as practice in responding intelligently to those with opposing views. Our students may regularly debate or argue on social media, yet schools rarely afford them the opportunity to acquire respectful debate skills as part of the curriculum.



In Missions 2 and 3, your students gained confidence in defining their digital identities and became aware of how their posts and shares impacted their digital reputations.

Those first steps laid the groundwork for this mission to participate in a respectful and thought-provoking virtual debate. Rich debate keeps the conversation going, celebrates differences of opinions and perspectives, and values well-constructed arguments.

All involved realize how a strong opponent opens their minds, challenges their beliefs, and improves their critical thinking skills. Additionally, healthy debate fosters peace, promotes democracy, and builds community relationships.

First, our digital citizens will learn how to craft clear, persuasive, and compelling arguments for an online forum. Their argument will state their positions, help their peers understand the reasons and logic behind their positions, and back up their views with support and evidence.

Then, classmates post respectful and logical counter-arguments, which further the dialogue. Students read these counter-arguments with an open mind and revise their initial arguments with new insights.

They develop strategies for dealing with abusive and hurtful comments, and learn how to passionately argue while keeping their emotions in check so they don’t personally attack peers, but instead argue points of contention.


As we know, online debates escalate quickly and bring out the worst in people. Young people may question the value of spending their time listening to beliefs and opinions different from their own, and they may attack the individual instead of logically rebutting specific points.

The activities below prepare learners to approach varying opinions with an open mind and focus their arguments on the issues.

Confront fears, myths, and intolerance: Anonymously poll students on their attitudes toward participating in respectful debates. Find a list of possible questions for the poll in the Mission Toolkit (Find the Toolkit in the Appendix section of Hacking Digital Learning Strategies). Present the poll results and host a discussion about tolerance, open-mindedness, and how differences help us grow and progress.

Grab Mission Toolkit 5 in Hacking Digital Learning Strategies

Play the agree/disagree warm-up: Students must take a stand on issues to be skilled debaters. Use masking tape to create a line on your classroom floor. Line students up on the left side of the tape, facing you. State a claim, such as, “Dogs are better pets than cats.” Instruct students to remain standing on the left side of the line if they agree and to move to the right side if they disagree. Students then face their peers. Starting on the left, each student gives one reason to support the claim. Then students on the right give reasons that dispel the claim. Continue this activity with safe topics and coach students to handle increasingly intense topics.

At various intervals, share rules and guidelines for building a safe environment to share opinions: Record these guidelines and tips to review later. For example, before students share their reasons why dogs are better pets than cats, state the rule that all must respect the listener. Elicit examples of how we show respect to foster understanding of the rule. After the first sharing of reasons, guide a group discussion to identify the components of strong reasoning.























  • Identify the guidelines for fostering a good online debate: As a class, evaluate how online debates differ from face-to-face debates. Present the class with the guidelines they came up with for respecting each other during the warm-up. Determine which guidelines work for fostering a good online debate, and add additional guidelines to complete the list.

Improve online arguments: Show the class an example of an online argument that went awry. The initial opinion should be strong and exemplify good writing techniques, before the conversation descends into an argument within the string of comments. Reddit’s Change My View forum has great examples of strong arguments followed by good and bad counter-arguments. The arguments and comments must meet strict criteria, and the moderator pulls any comments that violate the rules. Have the class analyze the strengths and weaknesses of the arguments and come up with guidelines for their own arguments. Then have the class analyze the counter-arguments and identify the most compelling ones. They should identify what makes the counter-arguments strong and come up with guidelines for their own.


Step 1: Focus arguments with a specific claim.

Instruct students to jot down ten strong, evidence-supported belief statements or viewpoints. The warm-up may inspire ideas. Have them cross out any ideas that they are tied to emotionally, that they don’t care enough about, or that promote violence, hate, or discrimination.

Students choose one of the remaining statements as their topic for the online debate. Help them transform their statements into specific claims that focus their arguments.

Step 2: Outline six valid reasons.

Review the qualities of strong support delineated by the class in the warm-up. Students outline a minimum of six reasons to support their claims based on these qualities and conduct a quick search of each reason to ensure its validity. They show a few peers their reasons and ask them to choose the three most persuasive and interesting before deciding on the three reasons they will include in their arguments.

Step 3: Survey people to gather insight and evidence.

Students create a survey with at least five questions to gather insight and evidence to support their claims and reasons. Help students draft clear, short, specific, and simple questions that will elicit meaningful feedback. Ask them to opt for multiple choice, open-ended, or ranking questions – and to avoid only yes/no questions.

I recommend Google Forms as a tool for students to create surveys. You can learn more about teaching with Google Forms in Hacking Google for Education.

Hacking Google for Education

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Step 4: Post arguments and create counter-arguments.

Students post their arguments in a designated online platform. Note that the idea isn’t to post a five-page argumentative essay with scholarly resources. Think of this as a precursor to these types of essays.

These online arguments should consist of three paragraphs or less in simple language, with logic, reasoning, and evidence. The idea is to spark debate, which means the arguments must appeal to their peers and be easy to digest. Your young debaters should begin to prepare their counter-arguments.

Step 5: Counter-argue and refute the counter-arguments.

Once students post their arguments, other students post counterarguments. The counter-arguments should challenge one or two ideas made by the author and provide reasoning and support for their contentions.

Writers should check the forum and refute all counter-arguments. These counter-arguments must be respectful and address the contentions with well-thought-out reasoning.

Encourage students to concede on certain areas of agreement. The idea isn’t to win the argument, but to refine belief systems and values. Additionally, conceding on specific areas moves the conversation forward to debate other areas of the issue, which leads to a broader understanding of the topic.

Step 6: Introduce a troll.

After a few days of healthy debate, announce to the class that a troll has snuck into their forum in an effort to thwart their missions. Trolls are individuals who target an online group and post inflammatory or off-topic messages to provoke a reaction or start quarrels. The troll doesn’t want your students to gain the skills to promote healthy debate, because he wants them to join him in spreading chaos on the internet.

Shelly Sanchez Terrell

EdTech Missions Creator Shelly Sanchez Terrell

The troll joins the group for a day or two, and only after your students have engaged in healthy debate. Set up an account with the username Troll, and wreak havoc in all threads so no one feels singled out. Your class troll will not name call, use inappropriate language, bully, or do anything that would hurt your relationship with your students.

Instead, the troll might make outrageous claims about the argument, post the same message multiple times, ask silly questions, or spam the thread with nonsense.

Step 7: Come up with strategies to end the troll’s havoc.

Students must come up with strategies to effectively handle the troll and limit his destruction. Allow students to search the web for tips using the query, “deal with trolls” and test these strategies.

Often, trolls suffer from mental illness and the best way to deal with them is to limit engagement. Other tips include reporting them, blocking, and muting. Eventually, the troll gets bored and moves on to the next victim.

Step 8: Reconstruct arguments with new perspectives.

Students use the Final Post Template–available in Kit 11 of the Mission Toolkit–to complete their final posts, and highlight three or more peer statements that made them think deeply about their topics. (Find the Mission Toolkit in the Appendix section of Hacking Digital Learning Strategies.)

They should identify statements that incited them, challenged their thinking, pointed out ideas they didn’t address, directed them to interesting research, or introduced them to a new experience. The students quote each peer’s statement and describe what they learned from it. Finally, they conclude their post by revisiting their initial stance and describing what has changed….

Read more

Don’t miss the Mission Obstacles and how to overcome them and the Mission in Action for this chapter, along with Shelly Terrell’s powerful Mission Toolkit.

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Remember, buy Hacking Digital Learning Strategies today in the Times 10 Bookstore here and get 25% off the retail price, when you check out with Promo Code: podcast

Forget Politics and Teach Tolerance

What happened in Charlottesville, Virginia should not be politicized. Many of us, including me, have made this despicable event about the president and what he said in the aftermath of violent protests of the removal of a statue.

Do I have opinions about these statements? Absolutely, but this isn’t the place to share them. Teachers, parents, and school leaders are better served with a discussion about how the events in Charlottesville can lead to lessons about tolerance.

But is teaching tolerance really a teacher’s job? You bet it is.

The attitude that we should stick to the curriculum is as archaic as the one-room schoolhouse. Educators can’t assume their students will learn tolerance at home; white supremacists had parents, and they obviously didn’t learn it.

We can’t be effective educators if we are ineffective at teaching humanity, and we can’t be humane if we are intolerant.

The Problem: humans hating other humans because they are different

This seems so obvious that I flinched at typing it. Still, if teachers ignore it, intolerance and hatred will fester.

Most educators are quick to condemn the actions of protesters in Virginia, but condemnation often ends with a flurry of barbs at the president and/or the perpetrators. Then we get to school, and race to our daily lessons.

The Hack: Teach tolerance

Sure, discussing racism and bigotry with kids can be delicate and risky, but when handled efficiently, it can unify your students and create an environment that is conducive to longterm learning.

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The key to success is to leave politics out of it. Discuss the actions of protesters and the impact of their actions. Reflect on history and similar events. Create plans to avoid hate and violence. When you focus on the dangers of hate and intolerance, much can be learned.

What you Can Do Tomorrow: Act now, while the topic is front and center

  • Tell students you want a productive discussion about hate and intolerance: Share facts only about what happened in Charlottesville, Virginia on August 12, 2017.
  • Be clear that statements by the president are not part of the discussion: Remind kids that they are welcome to their political opinions, but you want to discuss the impact of hate in our country and how to avoid it in the future.
  • Be emphatic that hating others because they are different is intolerable in your class, at your school, in your community, and in our society. There’s no acceptable pushback on this one. We must teach kids that hate is unacceptable.
  • Start planning: Invite students to create a plan of tolerance for your class and your school. This is the kind of grassroots effort that can make a difference on a grand scale later.

Pushback: There will be plenty of hurdles with a lesson on tolerance. Feel free to share your in comments and on our Facebook page, where this post is currently pinned.

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studernt voice

When Student Voice Says a Teacher is Awesome, You Have to Listen

Few people in the education blogging and podcasting world do what James Sturtevant does: feature students in their content, truly amplifying student voice.

Check out Jim’s amazing Hacking Engagement podcast below and his show notes, which bring one teacher’s students front and center. As Jim says, “Buckle up! You’re going to love this episode.”

Listen to “65-Matthew Porricelli Preaches the Gospel of Student-Led Learning and his 4th Grade Disciples Back him 1000%” on Spreaker.

Look inside Jim’s newest book, Hacking Engagement Again: 50 Teacher Tools That Will Make Students Love Your Class.

The Gospel of Student-Led Learning

By James Sturtevant

Matthew Porricelli is a 4th grade teacher at the Mamaroneck Avenue School just outside of Manhattan. In this podcast episode, we learn about Mr. P’s classroom from expert witnesses…his students.

These kids are a joy to listen to and the things they describe should be standard operating procedure in every classroom regardless of the level. Matt focuses on these keys to a learner-centered classroom:

  • Flexible Seating
  • Student-Led Lessons
  • Passion Projects (Which the kids frequently reference during the recording)
  • Hacking Assessment
  • Student voice

Mr. P’s class sounds like a dream, but what really moved me, was the way these young folks responded to their teacher. It’s apparent that there’s a bottomless mutual affection.

This episode is golden for it’s outstanding suggestions on pedagogy, but there’s something more profound. Matt’s students are crazy about him!

As you listen to these wonderful voices, keep asking yourself, How can I create such a climate in my room, where kids absolutely love learning?

Matt’s work and his students have inspired me. I received outstanding reviews on my book Hacking Engagement. One review, however, was critical. The reader felt like my hacks were geared too much towards older kids.

If someone throws out constructive criticism, I try to swallow my ego and learn and make adjustments. Hence, I’ve had two shows this summer featuring elementary students. They’ve been wonderful episodes!

Hacking Engagement Again

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Let’s apply the Hack Learning problem-solving model and employ Matt’s students to a learner-centered classroom.

The Problem

Teachers are stuck in outdated instructional models.

The Solution

Emulate Matt Porricelli’s teaching style.

What you can do Tomorrow

  • Answer this question: What clues did you hear in the episode which would explain Matt’s kid’s deep affection for him?
  • Compile a list of ideas that emphasize student voice and determine how you could implement some in your classroom.
  • Take one of the ideas he promotes and weave it into tomorrow’s lesson.
  • Debrief students at the end of the experience.
  • Seek out a like-minded colleague who would be game to experiment with some of Matt’s techniques. This partner in crime can help you and vice-versa.

The world is changing at warp speed. Education needs to change too. Matt’s classroom is the classroom of the future. Emulate his fine example, and you too can have remarkably enthusiastic students like his.

Build your student engagement toolkit

Check out James Sturtevant’s new book, Hacking Engagement Again, available here now.

Hacking your thin skin

Hacking your thin skin

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I grappled with the idea of writing and publishing this for quite a while. It’s not a feel-good post. It’s a bit in your face, depending on the kind of person you are, and it’s about as direct as anything you’ll read today. But it’s not without purpose, and it is certainly hacky.

That’s it for the disclaimer and the brace-yourself introduction. Let’s get to it.

You’ve got thin skin. Or you know thin-skinned people. You or they can’t deal with the slightest criticism, and the moment you hear it, the gloves come off. You’re reading this, because it’s possible that you’re concerned enough that the title of this post is true and you want to face the problem and figure out how to change.

If this is accurate, keep reading. There’s some hacky advice here, based on my own experience as a reformed thin-skinned person.

That’s right, I used to come unglued the second I thought someone was denigrating me or my work or even suggesting that I might be wrong about something. I was one of the most thin-skinned SOBs you’d ever meet.

When I was a classroom teacher, my short temper and defensive nature impacted my teaching and, unfortunately, my students and colleagues. I was sometimes even brusque with parents who had the audacity to question my methods. Once, in an email to a parent, I wrote, “How much experience as a classroom teacher do you have? I’ve got over a decade’s worth!” Ouch!

Why was I like this? What purpose did my anger and sarcasm serve? Sadly, it took a long time for me to ask these questions, and questioning your own personal makeup is the first step to realizing you have a problem with thin skin — at least that’s how it was for me.

Answering the second question was easier than answering the first. Why a person is defensive, angry, and willingly abrasive is an issue with deep roots.

My own are too far-reaching to cover here.

When you finally explore the benefits of thin skin, you quickly realize there are none.

For me, lashing out at a student who questioned me only eroded our relationship, and in most cases the individual would shut down. When a colleague argued that homework was necessary, I shouted that the research was on my side. Upon reflection, I realized that this didn’t lead to change in pedagogy; it only damaged an important collegial relationship. Being rude to a parent in an email led to a complaint to my principal, which brought other repercussions.

So what are the benefits of being thin-skinned? None. Unless you consider damaging relationships beneficial.

It took me the better part of a summer to come to grips with why I was like this and even longer to truly change. There are several attitudes, I’ve found, that make up the psyche of thin-skinned people. Consider if you have any or all of these attitudes.

You feel betrayed

We have preconceived ideas about how friends, or even close acquaintances, should treat us. And the moment they do something we question, we feel betrayed.

I have a huge following on Twitter, and I share my friends’ content liberally. Sometimes, though, I may disagree with or question something they share. I’m never rude about it; I usually just question their ideas or propose an alternative of my own.

I’ve had some good-natured arguments on social channels, and most of the time, they end cordially, and we live to argue another day.

Once I contended in a tweet that a longtime friend had missed a key point in an article he wrote for a well-known education blog. The tweet was pretty benign, praising his overall work while suggesting that X is an overlooked strategy. Unfortunately, when publishing the tweet, I failed to consider what I call the “thin-skin-factor.” The blogger was so incensed by my tweet that he reneged on a promise, saying he no longer wanted to be associated with me.

We’d collaborated on numerous small projects and chatted often about best practices in education. Still, one tweet was enough for him to abandon our friendship. This is one of many dangers of being comfortable in you thin skin.

You’re too political

My wife always says that religion and politics are off limits at family parties. She is wise beyond her years. Thin-skinned people can’t stand to have their political beliefs challenged. Admittedly, I share my opinions openly on my personal Facebook page. Usually, I post a slanted article and add a one-sentence personal annotation. I never vilify others for their opinions. These posts are just conversation starters. Still, I have been berated for them many times, both publicly and privately, on social media. A few times, longtime friendships have ended over a social share on Facebook.

You have to be right

One thing I had to overcome in order to shed my thin skin was my own confirmation bias. My friend Angela Stockman explains the dangers of this phenomenon here:  Questions That Help Curb Your Confirmation Bias

If we believe in a concept strongly but have little evidence to support the validity of the idea, we risk lashing out for no reason. I used to argue that poorly-behaved children would change if they were severely punished. I believed this to be true, because it was something I’d heard from many educators and parents.

I ignored the fact, however, that there is sparse evidence that a carrot-and-stick approach to discipline is even marginally successful at changing behavior. My confirmation bias, though, cultivated my thin-skin attitude for far too long.

You’re impatient

We live in a fast-food world — both literally and figuratively speaking. We want everything right now. As parents and educators, we want kids to do what we say immediately. I used to be the worst at this, and it’s still a struggle. If I instructed a student to move to another seat, and she hesitated for a millisecond, my blood boiled and I’d begin shouting.

Learn how to design a compassionate classroom

I once asked an administrator to unblock a website I wanted to use in my classroom. When I was told she’d have to confer with other administrators, I fumed. That day, I zipped off a harshly-worded email to colleagues about how our administrators were negatively impacting education with their archaic, traditional philosophies. The website was unblocked six months later, after a change in central office. My thin skin inspired the email that only served to delay things and, as it turned out, it was I who was hurting my students.

3 hacks for your thin skin

The good news is you can toughen up. If I did it, anyone can. Start with these three simple hacks, and save your professional life and your relationships.

1 — Pause and Plan

This is similar to the old advice to take a deep breath and count to 10. What distinguishes the Pause-and-Plan hack, though, is the plan phase. Sure, you can count to 10 in your pause moment, but then you have to ask, “What should I do next?” or “How should I react?” If I could go back in time, when the school leader told me I needed to wait for a committee meeting to approve my website, I would have paused and planned. My answer to “How should I react?” would have been: Take a step back; find an alternative instructional tool, and just wait!

2 — Abandon social media, at least for a while

If you’re too political or you have to be right, steer clear of social media, especially during election time or when key new legislation arrives. If homework, grades, or abortion are hot-button issues for you, avoid these discussions on Twitter and Facebook. Just walk away from your computer or put your mobile device in your pocket the second you see a post or comment about your hot-button issue. If you feel you must say something, apply the Pause-and-Plan strategy before you contribute to the social media discussion.

3 — Meditate

Back in my thin-skin days, I thought mediation was for only monks or people in cults. When I read a book about meditation and mindfulness, I decided to give it a try; after all, the research on meditation’s impact on emotional states is impressive. It didn’t take long for me to become hooked on meditation. Best of all, when I feel a thin-skin moment coming (yes, it still happens), I sometimes move to a quiet place, clear my head, and focus on simple breathing. After just a few minutes of this, my anger is gone. Meditation and mindfulness can thicken even the thinnest skin.

Shed your thin skin today

As noted at the beginning of this post, it’s not inspirational, and it is a bit in your face. As is the case with all things Hack Learning, though, the three hacks for your thin skin are designed to toughen up your emotional state and to thicken your skin.

A version of this originally appeared here on Medium