colonial debate

History teachers Casey Visser, right, and Nels Jensen dress up for a colonial debate between loyalists and revolutionaries at Will James Middle School on Wednesday. 

LARRY MAYER, Gazette Staff

Thomas Jefferson squirmed a bit Wednesday morning. 

Eighth-grade students at Lewis and Clark Middle School were in the midst of a colonial-era debate, donning the monikers of revolutionary and British government figures, along with some poorly fitting wigs. They played out a fictional debate in which fighting had started in the revolutionary war, but there was still time to patch things up. 

One group of students played the role of revolutionary colonists like Samuel Adams and Ben Franklin, another played loyalists to the British Crown, and another served as neutral judges. 

Jefferson, played by eighth-grader Sydney Garza, was pinned down by an awkward question for a slave owner — would you free them if the colonies were given independence?

"Um," Garza said, exchanging quick looks with a classmate, "I would."

The judges were less than convinced, and early voting on the debate showed a near-even split between loyalists and revolutionaries. The founding fathers ended up prevailing, but larger lessons for students centered on supporting their arguments with convincing evidence — no matter whether students were true believers.

"I didn't like slavery," said Garza, who played Jefferson, "so it was kind of hard for me to argue why I had slaves."

The debate is a regular exercise for teachers Casey Visser and Nels Jensen, who trotted out full colonial costumes and chipped in with extra context like a reminder that colonists were smuggling in cheap Dutch tea amid an argument over the Boston Tea Party.

For Duncan Honea, the paper Burger King crown he wore rested heavily on his head.

"It was kind of awkward being King George," he said.

As George III, his role was to argue for positions he didn't personally support. But he also recognized that the king was in a tough spot, primarily catering to the positions of England while managing a sprawling British empire — it was hard to please both the interests of colonists and those at home.

The debate depended less on knowledge of colonial factoids, though competition was fierce during a round of questions where those who answered correctly were awarded colonial-era wigs (not to be confused with Whigs). 

Convincing arguments about the Quartering Act, which required colonists to house British soldiers, didn't center on the exact specifications of the act, but more emotional pleas about invasion of privacy and lost room space and food. From the British side, appeals didn't center on the legal authority of the crown, but arguments about safety with references to the then-recent French and Indian War. 

"It's not really about the tiny details," said Isabella Garcia.

Classmate Zack Friedt chimed in.

"It's more about the evidence and the claim."  

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Education Reporter

Education reporter for the Billings Gazette.