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Turn Them Loose - Let Them Teach

Drug Prevention Activities that Work

Drug prevention education is one of the most important duties teachers can undertake. Yet, when a teacher - or any adult - says something is really bad and warns students never to do it, some of those students will be inexplicably drawn to the idea of doing it. Given this You Say No I Say Yes Principle, how can we teach kids to avoid drugs?

One way is to get students to teach each other. Have them take over the sales pitch. Here is a lesson idea to do just that.

ACTIVITY: Debate the Hazards of Drugs

Two Class Periods Before the Day of the Debate

1. Ask What They Know.

Begin with the straightforward question, "What drugs have you heard of?" List these on the board, grouping them into categories (crystal with ice with Methamphetamine, OxyContin with Prescription Drugs, beer with Alcohol, etc.). Give a brief description of each for the uninitiated. These are the drugs you need to cover.

If a student names a drug you've never heard of, inquire about the nature of the drug, categorize it, and go on. I freely admit to students I don't know everything about drugs, and I'm glad I don't.

2. Ask Where They Stand.

The next step is to ask, "Which drug do you think is the worst?" You don't want their reasons. Just the name of the drug that they think is the worst. Write these responses on the board, and each student's initials next to his response (e.g., Ecstasy -- J.B.). Continue writing until every student in the class is committed to one. It is useful to allow only three or four names next to each drug category, to divide the groups more evenly.

At this point, I can almost guarantee students will take off arguing with each other. Wait until they reach a crescendo, then silence the discussion and call for a debate.

3. Have Students Gather Ammunition.

Tell students they have the rest of the period and the next day to research the issue. The lists of hazards associated with drugs are easy to find. Many Web sites provide a thorough explanation of the hazards:

Let the students research these sites or provide the printed pages from them. Each student's job is to find and record the most powerful reasons to support their claim that the drug they represent is the worst.

Day of the Debate

1. Set the Ground Rules

Arrange the desks facing each other in a circle and have students sit next to the other students in their drug group. Identify each group with a sign "Heroin," "Meth," etc. Then have the debate moderator (most likely, you) share these rules:

  • We will proceed clockwise around the circle allowing one person from each group to relate one powerful fact as to why the drug you are representing is the worst. (Remind students to share only those facts helpful to their side of the debate, or you could find students sharing less-than-helpful information, like the short-term pleasures attributed to their drug.)

After you have gone around the circle once, and each group has put forward one fact, the moderator instructs:

  • The next time we proceed around the circle, a different student in the group must speak. We will continue going around the circle until every student in each group has shared at least one fact.

After every student has shared at least one fact, open up the floor to all.

  • Now that every student has shared, we will open the floor to all students who wish to speak. As in any debate, you must be recognized by the moderator to speak. Raise your hand if you wish to be recognized. You may respond to each other, but only if you are recognized by the moderator.

Then sit back and listen. You’ll find the kids who don't usually participate taking lead roles, and even students who are actively involved in drugs speaking out. You'll hear students tell about the adverse effects of drug use on their own families, and on themselves.

2. Bringing It Home.

At this point, I like to add another rule, to make the debate more true-to-life. I tell students:

  • If you become convinced by a speaker that another drug is worse than your own, you may change seats and join that group.

I like this rule. It allows for the students to receive feedback from the class on the effectiveness of their argument immediately after they speak. Furthermore, it allows the students themselves to decide the outcome of the debate. As in real life, the team that ends with the most people convinced of their argument wins. This technique is really empowering, and students take to the idea immediately.

3. Hold On to the Edges

In the course of the debate, you may find that a very potent and lethal drug, for example alcohol, has been underrepresented or abandoned by students who have been convinced to join other groups. At that point you may want to sit in one of the vacated seats and take up the anti-alcohol cause, while appointing a volunteer to take over your job as moderator. Having a fellow student leading the debate will further increase the students' confidence in the value of this activity.

4. Keep It Going.

Students love to debate with each other, and even more so, debate about a subject that affects them, like drugs. I've seen these debates at the middle and high school level get so heated that they carry on for days -- methamphetamine vs. alcohol, tobacco vs. alcohol, inhalants vs. tobacco, etc. The debates will continue in the hall, in the lunchroom, at the basketball game, and the next term when the kids stop in to visit. And that's good.

The beauty of this activity quickly becomes evident: while the students are debating each other, they are also teaching each other to avoid drugs, in their own words, from their hearts.

That’s All So Far. I don't have all the answers, and I can't guarantee that the students I worked with have all made positive choices since our time together. I can guarantee that they were impacted by these activities, and that they know more about the serious long-term effects of drugs than they did before. In the process, I have learned too. I have learned that given the right information and the right reasons, students are their own best teachers.

Marya Washington Tyler is a gifted child consultant in Ketchikan, Alaska. She has taught in a one-room school (one year), elementary gifted students K-6 (10 years), and sixth grade (2 years). She is the author of Real Life Math Mysteries, It's Alive!, It's Alive and Kicking, Alien Math, and Extreme Math, all published by Prufrock Press.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the NEA or its affiliates.

Other Articles in This Series

» Dealing with Boredom As an Excuse -- Opening the discussion about drugs and helping students focus on activities other than taking drugs.

» Practice Saying No -- Applying the effective anti-drug strategy of practicing drug refusal.

» Call In the Reinforcements -- Using older students who do not use drugs as role models.