Structured Academic Debate: Booker T. Washington and W.E.B Dubois

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Common Core Standards

Purpose and Overview

The speeches, writings and accomplishments of Booker T. Washington’s and W.E.B. Du Bois encapsulated two very different approaches to racial advancement, race relations and education.  Within their arguments are controversies that continue today: Economic Prosperity vs. Political Rights, Vocational Education vs. Liberal Arts, Separatism vs. Integration, Patience vs. Action, Compromise vs. Full Demand.

Through the study of speeches, and other primary documents students will identify and understand the differing positions of Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. Du Bois on the following topics: Black Advancement, Race relations, and Education.  After teacher presents initial background information on Biography, Vocabulary and Concepts, students will work in teams engaging in a Structured Academic Controversy— engaging in collaborative discussion, building consensus and formulating their own viewpoints.  In a follow-up writing assignment students will express their own position in either a Persuasive Essay or a Synthesis Essay. 

Persuasive Essay 

PROMPT: At the turn of the twentieth century which leader’s position represented the best hope for Progress? Include their strategies for Black Advancement, plan for Education and approach to Race Relations in your essay.  

Synthesis Essay

PROMPT: If you could design a plan at the turn of the twentieth century, representing the best strategy for change, educational progress and race relations, what ideas from each leader’s speeches and writings would you include?  Which ideas do you feel are not conducive to progress? 

Resources For Lesson

Day 1 and 2: Biography and Key Terms

Students will watch the 3-4 minute biographic videos snapshots of and BOOKER T. WASHINGTON and W.E.B. DU BOIS on  (Go to the that URL and enter each in the search bar.) These video snapshots are excellent entry points because they show archival photographs of the leaders in their era and because they also cover the key phrases and concepts associated with these leaders and this debate.  Students should copy down key terms or be given a handout with these key terms below.  They should be instructed to listen for the terms in the videos.  Those terms not stated in the video will be covered in the class discussion and readings.

Key Terms



Industrial Education


Material Prosperity 



Talented Tenth

Civil, Social and Political Rights


Niagara Movement


Activity: Working in pairs or teams, students posit preliminary definitions of terms based on prior knowledge.  Later, as a whole class, in a debriefing activity teacher will give additional information, refining student’s understanding of these terms, some of terms, such “Talented Tenth” or “Accommodationism” which cannot be adequately understood without background information from teacher and readings. 

Independent Reading: (In-Class, Homework or Lab time) Teacher may choose to print handouts, or assign in a computer lab or as homework.  Students should take notes or annotate (“talk to the text”) the following articles:

After readings, teacher leads students through short whole class debriefing, including revisiting understandings of key vocabulary. Teacher asks: what additional things did you learn about the life and ideas of Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. Du Bois in the readings from  How have the readings changed your understanding of some of the key vocabulary terms? 

Day 3: Introduction to the Speeches of Booker T. Washington 

Before students begin independent and team textual analysis of speeches, the teacher will model the textual analysis of a primary document by looking at selected representative quotations and sections of speeches from each leader. 

Booker T. Washington: Atlanta Compromise

Teacher will lead entire class through three quotes from the Atlanta Compromise.  The student should have the quotes in front of them. 

The Atlanta Compromise Speech 

Quote #1: Occasion, Audience and Tone

I but convey to you, Mr. President and Directors, the sentiment of the masses of my race, when I say that in no way have the value and manhood of the American Negro been more fittingly and generously recognized, than by the managers of this magnificent Exposition at every stage of its progress.

With this quote the teacher can give background information and establish the occasion and audience for Washington’s speech— the sponsors and attendees of the Atlanta Cotton States and International Exposition.  Then students should be asked to identify Washington’s tone (earnest? hopeful? solicitous? obsequious?) and his purpose in taking this approach with this audience. 

Quote #2: Metaphor/Analogy

This second quote is the central extended metaphor of the speech, “Cast down your bucket where you are.”  (3rd Paragraph) . The quote: “A ship lost at sea for many days suddenly sighted a friendly vessel… Cast it down in agriculture, in mechanics…in the professions. “

Have students surmise the meaning of the metaphor. Is it intended to apply to economic affairs? social affairs? Later in the speech Washington applies the same metaphor to the Whites of the South.  How does he see this metaphor applying to both races? 

Quote #3: Comparison, Chiasmus

“The opportunity to earn a dollar in a factory just now is worth infinitely more than the opportunity to spend a dollar in an opera house.”

Note the juxtaposition between earning a dollar in a factory and spending it in an opera house. This hints at core distinctions between Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. Du Bois and provides a nice segue to move into the speech of the other. Invite students to consider what Washington does not emphasize and why his speech is called Atlanta Compromise. 

At the conclusion of the discussion students should be given the full text of the Atlanta Compromise Speech and spend the rest of the period in silent reading.

Day 4: Introduction to the writing and speeches of W.E.B. DuBois

W.E.B Du Bois: The Talented Tenth

The “The Talented Tenth,” was published in the The Negro Problem: A Series of Articles by Representative Negroes of To-day in 1903. Quotes #1 and 2 are taken from the first three paragraphs, (about one page) ending at “from whom proceedeth every good and powerful gift.”  Quote #3 comes later in the piece. Students should be given a copy of the abridged speech. 

The Talented Tenth“ Use the Abridge Version here


The Talented Tenth, The Unabridged Version

 The following quotes will be discussed:

Quote Set #1: Definition, Ethos

The Negro race, like all races, is going to be saved by its exceptional men. The problem of education, then, among Negroes must first of all deal with the Talented Tenth; it is the problem of developing the Best of this race that they may guide the Mass away from the contamination and death of the Worst, in their own and other races.

A saving remnant continually survives and persists, continually aspires, continually shows itself in thrift and ability and character. Exceptional it is to be sure, but this is its chiefest promise; it shows the capability of Negro blood, the promise of black men.

From the very first it has been the educated and intelligent of the Negro people that have led and elevated the mass.

Extended definition is the central method Du Bois uses in “The Talented Tenth” to develop his argument. Invite students to identify the various ways Du Bois defines the term “Talented Tenth” in these quotes (and throughout the speech). What five synonyms does he use? What does he see as the role of the Talented Tenth? How is his definition of “Talented Tenth” central to the thesis of this piece? 

We see that Du Bois uses names of extraordinary men and women, who provided leadership in the dark days of slavery.  How do examples help to define the Talented Tenth and make the argument? He continues, with a longer list of exceptional Freedmen and Former Slaves. Are the names familiar to you? How may this help to make the point:  “You misjudge us because you do not know us.” In the version of “The Talented Tenth” I have abridged for this lesson  I have summarized this section and the full list of names is included.  

Using the full text is an option, and students who work with the full version may also benefit from going outside the close textual analysis to find some biographical information on these leaders. This will factor in their observations of how Du Bois uses the ethos and words of “The Talented Tenth” of yore as part of his argument. 

Quote #2: Organization 

If this be true–and who can deny it–three tasks lay before me; first to show from the past that the Talented Tenth as they have risen among American Negroes have been worthy of leadership; secondly to show how these men may be educated and developed; and thirdly to show their relation to the Negro problem.

Rather than point out this quote, ask students to find the statement that lays out the organizational structure of the essay.  Then have them rephrase it: what does he intend to do in this essay? 

Quote #3: Audience and Tone

Men of America, the problem is plain before you. Here is a race transplanted through the criminal foolishness of your fathers. Whether you like it or not the millions are here, and here they will remain. 

Of course they are the rule, [the Negro masses—which the counter-argument would state—are mired in death, disease and crime] because a silly nation made them the rule: Because for three long centuries this people lynched Negroes who dared to be brave, raped black women who dared to be virtuous, crushed dark-hued youth who dared to be ambitious, and encouraged and made to flourish servility and lewdness and apathy.

The audience should be named and the tone identified.

Day 5, 6:  Structured Academic Controversy. 

Once textual analysis of these speeches has been modeled and key concepts introduced, students are ready to embark on their own analysis of the text. These will be accomplished through a Structured Academic Controversy.  In Teaching Democracy, Walter C. Parker states, “Johnson and Johnson (1988) call the strategy Structured Academic Controversy in order to emphasize, first, the structured or scaffolded nature of the discussion and, second, the academic or subject matter controversies that at are at issue.”  (Parker, p.142)

The controversy will be framed as follows:

Which leader’s thinking was most conducive to progress for the African American of that time and place?  Consider each leader’s ideas about Black Advancement, Race Relations, and Education. 

The considerations for consensus, will be framed as follows:

It is the turn of the twentieth century. Design a plan which represents the best strategy for change, educational progress and race relations, based on ideas from each man’s speeches and writings.  Also mention which ideas from each leader you would not include and tell why. 

The following readings will be given to the students:

The Atlanta Compromise Speech


Address to the Harvard Alumni Dinner 


The Talented Tenth

The Men of Niagara

A description of the process of Structured Academic Controversy can be found at The Center for Education in Law and Democracy,

1. Students are organized into groups of four, and each group is split into two pairs. One pair in a foursome studies one side of the controversy, while the second pair studies an opposing view. Partners read the background material and identify facts and arguments that support their assigned position. They prepare to advocate the position.

2. Pairs take turns advocating their positions. Students on the other side make notes and ask questions about information they don’t understand.

3. Next, pairs reverse positions. Each pair uses their notes and what they learned from the other side to make a short presentation demonstrating their understanding of the opposing view.

4. Students leave their assigned positions and discuss the issue in their foursomes, trying to find points of agreement and disagreement among group members. Teams try to reach consensus on something; if they cannot reach consensus on any substantive aspect of the issue, they should try to reach consensus on a process they could use to resolve disagreements. 

5. The class debriefs the activity as a large group, focusing on how the group worked as a team and how use of the process contributed to their understanding of the issue.

Teachers may choose to have a final SAC debate or consensus presentation before the entire class.  

More resources on structured academic debates can be found at these Web sites:


The Center for Education in Law and Democracy

Structured Acadmic Controversy: What Should We Do?

Walter Parker, “Feel Free to Change Your Mind”


Finally, the paper will be assigned to the student. (See prompts at the beginning of this lesson)  The teacher may choose one of the prompts or let the students themselves make the choice.  

Notes for teachers: 

Students may find Booker T. Washington’s tone and approach to race relations so compromising that they will discount him. In comparison Du Bois’s, “To the Men of Niagara” will seem much more contemporary. I recommend teachers guide students by giving “a handicap”(as in a game of golf) to Washington. In the argument for prioritizing economic prosperity and vocational education over civil rights and the education of the whole person, the side that includes a job is compelling.  Or put this way– While DuBois argued that man cannot live by bread alone, Washington argued that the first rung of the hierarchy is bread, and first and foremost, this foundation must be laid.  Another way to give Washington’s side a fair shake with contemporary students is in presenting the biographical and historical aspects of this lesson, as his effectiveness is undeniable.    A textual analysis alone cannot show the scale of his accomplishments, his success in fundraising, and the benefits he reaped for his people.   

Acknowledgements: Special thanks to Tony Renouard, Nathan Hale High School, for giving me the idea for this lesson. 

Lee Micklin, 

Bothell High School, Bothell, Washington