Walk into Davidson Elementary School, and you'll immediately notice there's something that sets it apart from other places of learning.
Glance at the walls, covered in students' art and poetry. Outside, see children rehearsing a play in the amphitheater or using the nature trail as an outdoor classroom.
As the parent of a second-grade student and a leader of school tours, I am constantly impressed with the creative methods the staff uses to teach the curriculum.
So it wasn't surprising to find out that some of the fifth-grade students, under the tutelage of teachers Nicole Fraser, Katie Verlin and Kathleen Tedone, were using this year's extra 45 minutes of school time to build critical-thinking skills in a nontraditional manner - by researching and presenting a formal debate.
When Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools implemented a longer school day this year, Davidson Principal Terry Hall saw an opportunity to meet each student's learning needs. "We didn't want it to be a study hall. We wanted everybody to shine at their own level," she said.
Fifth-grade teachers brainstormed how to use the 45-minute FLEX (Fostering Literacy Excellence) time to best address the common core curriculum and noticed that one of the focus areas was argumentation.
They decided to hone in on one of their science objectives and have the students prepare projects about which weather phenomenon was most devastating. For a group of students in the Talent Development program, the project went a step further - groups were set up to research and present a debate.
Since the full debate format usually doesn't occur until high school, staff thought the children might meet some challenges but were pleasantly surprised by their initiative. "It was the kind of project that we could have left the room for an hour, come back, and they still would have done great," said Tedone, who teaches TD.
During the course of a month, students began by researching assigned natural disasters, then narrowed down a debate question about which is most devastating. They made teams and prepared arguments.
One of the only problems: "I found that students were so interested in their natural disaster they would often get caught up in facts and pictures that didn't necessarily go with the debate topic," Fraser said. But "as the date of the debate came closer, the students zoned in more on the focus."
I was invited to the debate, where students did a four-minute presentation followed by a three-minute rebuttal and one-minute closing from each group. Wildfires versus tsunamis, hurricanes versus earthquakes - each group was articulate and well-prepared.
"They've really built critical-thinking skills that I think go beyond the elementary level. This is a synthesis of skills that they can take to middle school and beyond," Tedone said.
Fraser was also impressed with their growth. In addition to learning how to collaborate and make compromises within the group, students also discussed source credibility in a world dominated by the Internet.
"We discussed the amount of information available to us today, and how important it is not to believe everything we read. Hopefully they will stop and think, 'Is this a credible source?' "
"What's amazing," said Hall, "is that none of this would have happened without the extended day."