Reading, Writing, and.... Debating in Prisons


I think it was last year that an inmate debate team in eastern upstate New York got noticed when it beat a Harvard debate team.  Today, there was an NPR piece in Massachusetts about Norfolk inmates reviving an historical prison debating society and also beating several university debating teams. I didn't know that "the belief that prisoners can be rehabilitated through education and debate was the foundation on which the Norfolk prison rose in the 1930s" and I was struck by inmate Alexander Phillips' observation that "It’s the ability to highlight our potential, that we shouldn’t just be thrown away."

Are more prisons again taking seriously their role in rehabilitation, or put another way, are they providing education, occupational, gardening, debate, and other activities that might lead to opportunities for a different life for those who will be released, and as for those who will live the rest of their lives behind bars?

Will the prison debate phenomenon have an impact on public schools, and on adult basic skills and secondary education programs?  Does anyone see a connection between the kind of skills needed to win debates and those needed for careers and post-secondary education?

In case you were wondering, prison debating teams, at least for now, have no "away" games.

David J. Rosen


Sir, this is our second year of having a debate program and while the numbers are small, the reports are that there has been a lot of meaningful impact on the inmates who are participating.  The university team that comes in has said that it has helped their program as well.


Hello Marshall,

Please tell us more about this program. What are some of the reported outcomes of the Idaho prison debate initiative for inmates and for the university team?

Others: Please tell us about your prison debating program.


David J. Rosen


Sir, I'm not directly involved in the program and I'd have to convince the GED teacher who was, to give her views (granted she was a communications major - so it probably wouldn't be that hard).  The link below is from Boise State's newsletter, where some of them who were involved give their thoughts on the program.

Marshall and David, I really appreciate the idea of bringing in debating to the language-development topic, especially in corrections, where resources are few but opinions are many! Debating requires higher cognitive development, something that is often ignored in language instruction! Thanks for sharing the idea and the link to more information! Leecy


There is certainly a benefit for teaching students to debate in the classroom. Traditionally, we ask students to present their ideas in writing and develop a thesis with supporting details. The value of teaching debating skills in adult education, when we are so clearly focused on career readiness and academic preparedness, is that students develop strong reasoning skills. Debating a topic adds another layer to the evaluation process. Students experience counterarguments, disconfirming evidence, and opposing views. Teaching debating skills in a classroom helps students develop disciplined, layered, and thoughful responses to different ideas. 

Kathy Tracey


Thanks Kathy for reminding us that debating adds another layer in the ABE/ASE evaluation process. Of course, the importance of oral language skills, perhaps including debating, are obvious in teaching ESOL/ESL too.

I have several questions for you and others who teach reading and writing to native English speakers and/or to immigrants:

1) If you teach native speakers of English, do you teach oral language skills, too, even though standardized tests may not measure them?

2) If you teach adults oral language skills, what do you see as the relationship between oral skills and the kinds of thinking skills now expected for college and career readiness?

3) Would you -- and would your students  -- agree that oral language skills, in the college classroom and/or in a career are as important as written communication skills? More important?

4) Do you see a role for oral language skills in teaching writing?

5) As you may know, Socrates was opposed to writing, as he believed that it would erode the skills of memory, and perhaps he had a point, although I am certainly not advocating giving up writing. I am wondering, however, if you see a role for oral skills in strengthening memory, for example through debate, or memorizing and orally presenting poems or well-crafted speeches?

David J. Rosen


something else to think about: I teach ESL writing at a university as an adjunct.  My students regularly use their phones to photograph assignments and writing on the white board.  I explicitly ask them at times to put down their phones and write something so that they can learn it through the act of encoding.


Hi Janet, 

Last week, I led a classroom discussion of how to develop an effective essay. We had an active discussion and great questions. At the end of class, all of my students came up to the board to take pictures. But this practice isn't only for students. At a work related meeting, we have notes on the board and at the end of the meeting, team members take pictures! 

As far as my students are concerned, I now ask them to submit a 'quick write' at the end of the class period. Basically, they can take the pictures, but then they need to review their image and summarize what they learned in the classroom. While we teach debating / discussion / verbal skills to our students, we also neet to integrate the writing skills with it. 

Thanks for that reminder. :-) 



I've used the Read-Write-Thinks persuasion map with students.  The Persuasion Map is an interactive graphic organizer that enables students to map out their arguments for a persuasive essay or debate. Students begin by determining their goal or thesis. They then identify three reasons to support their argument, and three facts or examples to validate each reason.  It really makes students consider how ideas connect.

And, back to David's beginning point -- the Fall 2016 issue of Lumina Foundation Focus magazine looks at innovative education programs in prisons.


Hi Janet, Kathy, and others

I see this as a pretty common practice now, although I still prefer taking notes on a keyboard or with pen and paper. I find, and some research has suggested, that taking notes the old fashioned way(s) may better embed information or ideas in one's long-term memory.

I wonder if you -- and others here -- have tips on how to organize "notes images" so they can easily be retrieved for study or information searching. Pinterest? Dropbox? LiveBinders? Another online filing program?

Any tips on a sensible system of categories for filing notes images so that they are easy to find and read from any digital device?

I wonder if any teachers have assigned students roles in their classes that include photographing and uploading chalkboard or whiteboard notes to a class webpage or class platform such as Schoology or Edmodo?

Any tips on studying these notes images?

David J. Rosen