CONCORD -- In the old days, students passed notes to each other when they wanted to communicate without being overheard in class.
But in Phil Miller's Advanced Placement U.S. History class at Carondelet High, students have a more sophisticated way of communicating with each other -- using digital technology to enhance classroom debates.
During a hotly contested debate Wednesday about whether or not it was a good idea for the United States to annex the Philippine Islands in 1900, students pulled out laptops and logged onto team blogs to tap out ideas for questions and arguments.
While four students from each team made oral arguments, including rebuttals and cross-examination, the other students on their teams busily searched online and posted supporting arguments on the blog that Miller calls "the back door."
"This type of program includes the entire class," Miller said. "I had one girl last year who would rarely raise her hand, but she's a really good writer and by supporting her debate team, she was able to make public four arguments."
Students said they like integrating technology into their debates because it allows for research to be ongoing, instead of preparing arguments ahead of time then getting stumped if the opposition makes an argument that is difficult to rebut.
"It helps so I don't feel stuck," said 16-year-old Julianna De La Torre of Pleasanton, who argued in favor of annexation. "I'm going online to do research and getting backup on the blog."
Arguing against annexation was Kelsey Pasco, 16, of Walnut Creek, who said the tech-savvy debate format keeps everyone involved, instead of only those making verbal arguments.
"It's a cool way to learn," she said during a break after the first round of arguments. "It makes me want to find out more. And it helps having some backup."
One of Pasco's aces in the hole was Olivia Haney, 16, of Concord, who supplied an argument through the back door that prompted Pasco to turn and silently mouth "good job," after presenting it. Haney said the blog allows everyone to submit their arguments at once, instead of having to wait their turn to speak, as they would in a traditional class debate.
"I think this is a better way to go for people who don't like to talk," Haney said. "There's nothing to lose if it's a bad argument."
Blair Hurlock, one of several De La Salle High students who attends Carondelet classes through an agreement between the two private Catholic schools, echoed Haney's sentiments.
"It's a lot more effective with the computer because we're able to get our information to the speaker quickly," said the 16-year-old Tracy resident. "Also, it's a little bit easier for people who are a little more nervous about public speaking to have this as a way to participate without having to actually speak. So, I think that's pretty cool."
Miller said he's still working out the kinks in the format. During the break, he noted that students still wanted to speak to each other about their arguments, instead of just relying on their back door blogs, which are hidden from the opposing team. He also said he would like to figure out a way to allow the speakers to send requests for specific information to their teammates.
"A lot of them need that conversation process along with the digital process," he said. "They work together. They really do."
By the end of the debate, Miller said the students still wanted to continue researching and arguing both sides.
"It went really great," he said. "The kids were very much engaged. I would definitely continue to use this method of instruction."