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Award-winning Woodland High teacher uses March Madness to inspire students to debate famous Supreme Court cases

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Sharon Conditt, Woodland High School History and Government teacher, uses a variety of innovative techniques including designing debates utilizing College Basketball March Madness brackets to keep her students inspired and engaged. Conditt’s dedication to developing intriguing coursework and constantly improving student learning earned her the Washington State History Teacher of the Year Award for 2016 from the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History on May 16.

Sharon Conditt designed Supreme Court case debates around College Basketball's March Madness bracket system.
Sharon Conditt designed Supreme Court case debates around College Basketball's March Madness bracket system. 

For the March Madness debates, students in Conditt's AP Government class formed four teams to debate the significance of famous Supreme Court cases. Each team name is selected from chief justices of the Supreme Court with this year's teams including: Earl Warren, William Rehnquist, John Roberts, and John Marshall. Each team argues four cases for a class total of 16 different cases. Students help select the 16 cases by ranking a list of 32 cases by which they find most interesting.

Students choose roles on their team which fit their strengths including speakers, researchers, and notetakers. "Some of my students know that they can listen to and dissect an argument, so those students will take notes on a shared Google doc while other students may take on different roles for different cases," explained Conditt. "It's entirely up to the team as to how they want their dynamic to work."

AP Government students form teams with each student holding a different role on that team including speaker, notetaker, and researcher.
AP Government students form teams with each student holding a different role on that team including speaker, notetaker, and researcher. 

Teams debate why their case holds more significance than their opponent's in a traditional debating style where one team presents an argument followed by rebuttals and counter-arguments, all timed so students must create concise arguments and responses. Students use Chromebooks and cloud computing throughout the project to research cases, create arguments, design rebuttals, and correspond with their teammates. Student teams developed challenging interrogative questions during the debates which pushed opposing teams into answering the questions with material from the cases. "I really enjoy watching students formulate questions on-the-fly," said Conditt. "This kind of project demonstrates that the students are listening and able to communicate what they're thinking."

The debates encourage creative problem-solving by teaches students how to think on their feet. "The biggest challenge is teaching the students to debate logical arguments that aren't personal," explains Conditt. "Their arguments must be based on skill and content which can feel different to many students who might not have experience with debating techniques."

Four adult volunteer judges observe the debates and select the winners for each round. Judges include school employees ranging from secretaries and athletic coaches to school administrators and even the district superintendent. The judges are given a ballot for each case, scoring the quality of the arguments presented by the teams. The winning teams advance in the tournament and argue against other teams. "There is no way we could do this project without the help and support of our building and district staff," said Conditt. "I am so thankful for the Beaver Pride!"

Four volunteer judges observe each round of debates and select the winners by scoring the quality of the arguments presented by the teams.
Four volunteer judges observe each round of debates and select the winners by scoring the quality of the arguments presented by the teams. 

On Monday, May 16, 2016, The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History selected Sharon Conditt as the Washington State History Teacher of the Year for 2016. The National History Teacher of the Year Award recognizes outstanding K-12 American History teachers across the country with one winner per state receiving a $1,000 prize and an archive of classroom resources.

Conditt is no stranger to receiving awards and honors, having also received the James Madison Fellowship in 2009 which included $24,000 for graduate studies and a special course held in Washington D.C. at Georgetown University. Conditt greatly values the month-long course she attended at Georgetown in 2010. "I spent hundreds of hours reading related materials including founding documents for the 13 colonies; papers on Republicanism and Democracy; all of the notes on the Constitutional Convention; and all of the Federalist and Antifederalist Papers," she remembers. "We heard the Supreme Court decide five cases, met with justices, and had a private meeting with now-Senator Majority Whip John Cornyn; it was truly the opportunity of a lifetime."

Sharon Conditt was selected as the 2016 Washington State History Teacher of the Year by the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History.
Sharon Conditt was selected as the 2016 Washington State History Teacher of the Year by the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History. 

Conditt has been teaching for 16 years with 13 at Woodland Public Schools. She decided to become a teacher after growing up in West Germany during the Cold War and seeing the Berlin Wall torn down while her family lived there. "My passion for history was fueled by my experience growing up in a military family and moving often," said Conditt. "At every school, I was embraced by teachers who I believed really cared about me, my learning, and my social and emotional health; I knew from that point that I wanted to share my love of history and government while working to build confidence, academic skills, and citizenship in young people."

Conditt also finds motivation to develop new projects and coursework from watching her own students learn. "My students inspire me and they deserve the best I can give them each and every day," she explained. "I am always looking for new ideas to engage them and push their abilities so we can celebrate our strengths and overcome weaknesses both as individuals and as a class."