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Using Debate Competition in the Classroom: History Style

Jason Webster and Grady Long


     After six rounds of grueling competition, it was down to just two: the Great Emancipator and the Queen of the Nile. Having outlasted the likes of Mussolini, Bismarck, Suleiman the Magnificent, Akbar the Great, Genghis Khan, and 75 other historical world leaders, Abraham Lincoln and Queen Hatshepsut met in the Finals to decide the winner of the 2009 March Madness Rulers of the World competition at Essex High School, Vermont. As we tallied the votes of our esteemed colleagues, two things became crystal clear. First, we were looking at the first tie in the five year history of the competition. Second, we would be sure to never again have an even number of judges. While, as the two teachers of AP World History at the school, we were thrilled to see two of our students share this year's crown, the audience was less than pleased, reacting with an awkward, seemingly never-ending silence before spilling forth a crescendo of boos.

     While the idea of co-champions may have been hard for the students (and, indeed, some faculty) to swallow, for us, it was icing on the cake. We could hardly care less who had won – though both of us secretly pined to have the championship cup reside on our own desk in the department office – because our mission was already accomplished. All one had to do was look around the room that day. Approximately 90 students had packed into a double-classroom, after school, mind you, to witness four of their peers assume the roles of historical leaders and debate the merits of their reign. Queen Hatshepsut was carried in on the shoulders of her entourage. President Lincoln, complete with top hat, beard, and lanky frame, entered to a round of raucous applause, not only from classmates, but from the entire JV baseball team, which dropped in to support their teammate before practice. We even snuck Mussolini's mother in the back entrance of the room so that she could see, but not intimidate, the fascist leader during his speech.

     The March Madness competition is the pinnacle event for the AP World History class at Essex High School. [See ADDENDUM A: INSTRUCTIONS] The activity is one of several instances in which we use good-natured competition to engage students in learning about history. The beauty of this debate competition is its flexibility. Colleagues in the Social Studies Department here at Essex High School have incorporated similar forms of competition into a variety of disciplines, from American History to Economics. Yes, seriously, the world's greatest economists duked it out – Marx vs. Ricardo, Smith vs. Keynes.

     The structure for the college basketball-style tournament in AP World History has evolved over the last eight years. Initially, the idea came from a US History teacher in Virginia, who had toyed with the idea of creating brackets for US Presidents. From there, the focus shifted to freshmen and sophomore Modern Global History, and finally on to AP World History. The current format of the tournament is relatively straightforward, but the ensuing chaos is anything but. Students assume the role of an historical ruler and compete through the single-elimination basketball-style brackets to see who can emerge as the best ruler. [See ADDENDUM A: INSTRUCTIONS

     Students select rulers from an assortment of leaders spanning the annals of world history. [See ADDENDUM B: BRACKETS] There is even a Selection Committee, mimicking the NCAA basketball committee that selects tournament participants. That committee has included fellow teachers, but also former students who continue to take a considerable interest in the competition even after they are no longer in the class. Last year a student emailed us her own brackets from college complete with suggestions for new rulers to be included and others who are past their prime. Clearly, she has too much time on her hands. Once the rulers are chosen by the Committee and the brackets are formed, the students select who they will portray in the competition. While some students are eager to grab the high-seeded Napoleons and Kublai Khans of the world, others go for the underdog, hoping to earn additional credit for guiding a low seed through the brackets.

     The competition itself consists of single-elimination debates, with the winners moving on and the losers often jumping on the bandwagon of a remaining ruler. Each round has a different format, designed to challenge the students in their ability to seek and portray point of view, refine their research skills, and display their creativity. The early rounds focus on the students defining themselves as rulers. What were your greatest accomplishments? What is your lasting legacy? What makes you a ruler worthy of this competition? Students are left to define "greatness" for themselves, thus allowing a ruler such as King Menelik II to square off against a Stalin. The idea here is to place the appraisal of history into the hands of the students. As the jury, the remaining students must weigh the credentials of the various rulers, evaluate the arguments placed before them, shift focus continually between historical epochs, and frame the competition in their own minds as they cast their votes.

     As the competition continues, the debate formats change. Competitors can no longer rely completely on their prepared remarks – now they must think quickly on their feet as they handle questions from their classmates and teachers. Students continue to research their own historical figures in preparation, but equally important is the acquisition of an intimate knowledge of one's opponent. At this point in the competition, it is not uncommon to find teams of students huddled in our library, digging up whatever dirt they can in support of a classmate. Muckrakers and garbologists are on the attack. It is here where we have witnessed Czar Nicholas II challenge Thomas Jefferson on the issue of slavery and Akbar the Great confront Hammurabi on the class and gender distinctions present in his famous law code.

     With four AP World History classes in our school, those who emerge from this grueling competition as class winners square off in the Final Four. The first year we held a Final Four was in 2004, with 13 teachers as jurors and a small handful of students present to witness the competition. In the spring of 2009 more than 90 students showed up to witness the festivities. The students themselves are entirely responsible for the growth in interest and excitement for the event.  In the days and weeks leading up to the Final Four, the hallways are lined with propaganda posters endorsing or defaming one ruler or another. Students have created Facebook pages for their rulers and befriend fellow rulers or feud with their opponents. Even the Burlington Free Press, Vermont's largest newspaper, has covered the event each of the last two years.

     The hoopla associated with the event, however, is, in some ways, a bit of a double edged sword. While the attention and excitement surrounding the competition has been terrific, it tends to mask the real learning that goes on behind the scenes. Casual observers see the students dressed up in costumes, the propaganda, and the wild performances, but miss the historical study occurring underneath it all. With the Burlington Free Press coverage, we received a lot of positive feedback from the community, but some concerns were also voiced. One letter to the editor admonished Essex High School, arguing that our "celebrity death match dumbs down our educational process and sends the wrong message to our children. Dressing up and role playing can promote imagination and creativity, but children impersonating mass murderers and war criminals is inexcusable and offensive." (Burlington Free Press, April 17, 2008.) We read the letter to our students, who were outraged. Several sent their own letters to the editor in defense of the competition. (A comedic side-note… in publishing one of the student responses, the newspaper mistakenly attributed the letter to the actual Lorenzo de' Medici, not the student portraying him. The students got a real kick out of that one!)  The episode made us look deeper at what the students are truly learning in this process. The reflection that followed was both rewarding and vindicating.

     We asked ourselves, what do the students actually learn in this process? The answers, we found, were as numerous as they were satisfying. First, students complete a great deal of historical research. Not the generic, scratch-the-surface, Wikipedia research that has become all too common in classrooms, but actual historical research. Our students pester the librarians for sources, rummage through the Social Studies department bookshelves, scour the online databases looking for any insight, any tidbit of information that will provide them with an edge over their opponent. And, remember, they research not only themselves, but their opponents, and then their friends' opponents. This year's Queen Hatshepsut selected the Queen during class knowing literally nothing about the Egyptian ruler, only to find the newest National Geographic in her mailbox after school that same day with Hatshepsut's face on the cover. Destiny had smiled upon her, as she took the Queen all the way to the finals.

     The second major skill that we identified as central to the March Madness competition is the ability to understand point of view, a difficult, yet essential, tool of historical study. As competitors, the students must seek a deep understanding of their historical figure. Historical context, motivation, interactions, and personality all come into play as the students seek to, in essence, become the ruler. Perhaps the most memorable example of a student tackling the issue of point of view and historical perspective was three years ago. Not all historical figures are created equal, so there is certainly a challenge in portraying some of the more despised rulers that history has had to bear. Stalin, Hitler, Mao, and others, have committed despicable acts. But they cannot be ignored. Instead, they must be challenged.

     One student chose to challenge himself in a very meaningful and difficult way. Jeremy, a Jewish student, selected Hitler as his historical figure. He hemmed and hawed over the choice for quite some time, but finally came to the decision that it would be a personally worthwhile exercise. What we witnessed Jeremy go through over the next two weeks was both heart-wrenching and amazing. Jeremy sought to understand the historical context of Weimar and Nazi Germany. He dove into biographies of Hitler to gain some sense of his motivation. Before each debate, Jeremy removed his Star of David pendant, transforming himself into character. As an audience, we were awestruck in witnessing Jeremy's personal struggle with his role. In the end, Jeremy had made a genuine effort to comprehend the point of view of one of history's worst criminals as an historical exercise, while not losing touch with his own moral compass.

     Another historical concept that comes into play with the competition is periodization. With students portraying rulers that span the six major units of history as defined by the AP World History curriculum, from as far back as Hatshepsut and Nebuchadnezzar to as recent as Jawaharlal Nehru and Golda Meir, it is essential that they contextualize history effectively. When evaluating a debate between rulers of vastly different historical periods, students must utilize their understanding of historical context and themes.

     The final, but arguably most important, reason that we have and will continue to embrace the March Madness Rulers of the World competition is the sheer excitement, enthusiasm, and engagement that the students bring to the activity. No other project that we have utilized in the classroom has ever produced the kind of creativity in student performance and achievement that we see with this competition. The students' natural creative flair comes through in what they wear, do, and say. Student attire has included everything from homemade chainmail for Henry IV, to the classic top hat and beard of Abraham Lincoln, to authentic Korean formalwear for Sejong. The students invariably shock and amuse us with their colorful entrances and performances, which have included Mussolini dancing in complete with a boom-box blaring the theme to The Karate Kid, to Hatshepsut's royal entrance on the shoulders of her servants, to Akbar the Great who entered the Final Four accompanied by his harem.  The student quotes produced by the debates are priceless, and we keep a running list of some of the best posted on our department bulletin board as the competition unfolds. Among the classics:

- Che Guevara - "I said to him, "shoot, coward, you are only shooting a man"… and, yeah, he shot me."

- Julius Caesar - "I came, I saw, I conquered… yeah that's me."

- Shaka Zulu - "What I'd like to ask is… wait, let me put my violent weapons down."

     The March Madness Ruler of the World competition has become a staple of the AP World History class at Essex High School. The concept and format fit seamlessly with the AP World History curriculum but, as mentioned, there are numerous variations and adaptations that can be applied to other disciplines. With the structure in place, teachers can simply select the rulers, philosophers, presidents, and even economists they would like the students to tackle. The debate and presentation structures can also be adapted to fit different grade levels. In our freshmen Global History classes, we have used a much more limited version in which students complete a Ruler Résumé and then sit for a job interview as if they were the ruler. We are already looking forward to next year's competition, not knowing what awaits us with a whole host of new competitors, quotes, insights, connections, and memorable moments. One thing we know for sure, however, we will have an odd number of jurors for the Final Four.

Jason Webster is a Social Studies teacher at Essex High School in Essex Junction, Vermont. He teaches Global History and AP World History, and serves as Social Studies Department co-chair. He can be contacted at

Grady Long is a Social Studies teacher at Essex High School in Essex Junction, Vermont. He teaches American History and AP World History, and serves as Social Studies program curriculum coordinator for the Center for Technology at Essex. He can be contacted at

Addendum A

March Madness 2009  - INSTRUCTIONS

AP World History

It's March, and that means it's time for heated rivalries, thrilling upsets, and the menacing run to the Final Four. It's time to separate the pretenders from the contenders… and we're not even talking basketball. It's time for the 5th Annual AP World History March Madness – Rulers of the World Tournament™. The tournament committee has scoured through 10,000 years of history, traversing the entire globe in search of the best rulers of all time. It has come down to this:

82 Rulers, 1 Crown

Overview – the Tournament in Brief

You will assume the role of one historical ruler or figure. You must fight, claw, and scratch your way through the brackets, in search of the crown. Each round consists of a ruler debate, from which one ruler will advance and one will go home. In a four-class showdown, one winner will emerge to seize the crown and claim the title, Ruler of the World.

Individual Responsibilities

  1. Write a biographical sketch of your historic ruler or figure. The biography must include the basic background of the person. More importantly, the biography must emphasize the significance of the person and their impact on the course of history. Biographies must follow the appropriate template. The template is saved on the school homework site. You must save the template, insert your information, and email it back to Mr. Long or Mr. Webster.
  2. Email your biography to Mr. Long ( or Mr. Webster ( by the designated day.
  3. Assume the role of your ruler in debate competitions, seeking to advance through the brackets. Sell yourself! Become the ruler! In the debate, you should emphasize your own attributes, but don't forget to attack the weaknesses of your opponent!
  4. Serve on the jury. Each member of the class will serve as an impartial jury member, voting for the winner of the debates that you are not in. Vote for the winner of the debate by balancing the effectiveness of the presentation with the documented merits of the rulers.

Class Responsibilities

  1. As a class, you will work through your Region (section of the bracket) to the Final Four. The final debate will match the winners of A34, B12, B34, and B56.
  2. The jury for the Final Four will consist of well-informed jury members from the halls of Essex High School. More specific information will follow.


Biographical Sketches =     25 points

First Round Debate =         25 points (based on preparation / understanding / performance)

                                           50 points total

Extra Credit for each round that you advance in the tournament. Winners receive 2 points for each round (4 points for a major upset – if the seed difference is 5 or greater.)

Extra credit is built in for the following reasons:

  1. To reward those who put in the time to prepare and compete.
  2. To give credit to those who must present on multiple occasions. The more you win, the more extra credit, but also the more work and preparation.

The Big Picture

  1. This is designed to be fun and engaging. Have fun, but don't get carried away. Let the competition bring out the best in all of us, not the worst.
  2. When March Madness if over, all of you will walk away with access to 82 biographies of history's most significant rulers / figures. This will be a nice study guide for the exam if each individual puts in the time and does a quality job.


You will randomly select a selection number. We will then proceed to select rulers in the order of the selections.

Addendum B – Initial Competition Brackets

Figure 1


Addendum  C- Current Competition Brackets

Figure 1



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