- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 4, 2004

High school debaters and coaches agree that the personal and intellectual benefits derived from being part of a debate team can top the learning that takes place in a regular classroom.

As long as a committed coach is involved, gains in a student’s ability to think and write with clarity and conviction are striking, say educators and students in several Washington-area public and private schools where debate is offered for credit or as an extracurricular activity.

“A lot of students tell me that after taking debate, their writing skills improve dramatically,” says Mark McManmon, a history teacher and coach at the private Gonzaga College High School in the District. “They can learn to think for themselves and articulate a point of view in a logical, rational, thoughtful way. In a classroom, students don’t necessarily get a chance to articulate their point of view.”

Michael Schaefer, a Gonzaga senior from Columbia, Md., who is the team captain, agrees. “It teaches you how to outline. I can write a paper so much better. It is the first thing to go on top of a college resume.” He says the experience also improved his public-speaking skills.

Colin Touhey, an English teacher at the District’s Cardozo Senior High School, calls debate the single most effective teaching tool he has come across in a career at both the college and high school levels.

“They aren’t just reading. They are creating their own thoughts. When you are creating an argument, you not only have to break it into pieces, but weigh those pieces. In terms of learning — reading comprehension — and in terms of presentation, you can’t beat it.”

Cardozo students learn to present both pro and con points of view because, often, the flip of a coin determines which position a team will take.

“Debate relies on speech, argument and jargon,” he says, adding that “the test is to go into a room on a Saturday with evidence to convince a complete stranger. I’ve heard it said that death is the second-most scary thing and debate is first.”

The only drawback, says Mr. Touhey and other educators, is the need to constantly look for support from private sources and foundations, even when trophies pile up in a school’s display cases. Money is needed for supplies, travel to tournaments and stipends for coaches and judges.

A case in point is the situation facing the 2-year-old Urban Debate League of Washington, part of the National Urban Debate League movement, which has established 14 competitive public-policy debate leagues in less-well-resourced inner-city schools. Their goal is fostering citizenship and better research skills among young people.

“It was founded specifically to address the fact that minorities and women are under-represented in this activity,” says Pam Spiliadis of the Baltimore UDL. “Many go on to debate in pre-existing debate circuits that include the traditionally better-funded suburban and private schools.”

Seed money for the UDL movement given by the Soros Foundation’s Open Society Institute ends next year.

The D.C. league is run in partnership with the Multicultural Career Intern Program (a nonprofit group that formed the charter school that was turned into Bell Multicultural High School), the University of the District of Columbia and D.C. Public Schools, but it has yet to receive any funding from the local school board. It operates with support from two smaller foundations.

Sarah Snider, local league director, counts more than 200 students at 10 Washington public high and charter schools taking part, including Cardozo. From April 23 to April 25, DCUDL will host the Eastern Regional tournament, open to the public, at UDC. Some 250 people are expected to take part. (For information, see dc.hsdebate.com.)

Mr. Touhey initially thought Cardozo pupils would be attracted to joining the league — a public-policy debate course at the school is an elective with credit — because they like to talk and argue. What he found was participants wanting to stay hours after school discussing the pros and cons of the yearlong debate topic from last year — set by the Wisconsin-based National Forensic League, one of the two major leagues in the country — about adopting a comprehensive mental-health insurance policy.

“We turned this year’s topic [about environmental policy for oceans] into the need for cleaning up the Anacostia River, which gets to the Chesapeake Bay, then into the ocean and involves discussions of racism and capitalism,” Mr. Touhey says.

Debate’s popularity has been growing steadily over the past decade, says Ron Richards, a government and history teacher at Loudoun County’s Broad Run High School.

“It develops critical thinking and analytical skills better than in a classroom,” asserts the man who has coached that school’s team to numerous state championships since 1984. “More district, regional and state contests than any of the school sport teams,” he boasts.

Debate and forensics are noncredit extracurricular activities at Broad Run, which has 50 students participating in three leagues. Its budget of $5,000 annually is augmented by fund-raisers. At Gonzaga, only 20 out of about 1,000 students take part in the extracurricular debate team, “but it isn’t a nerdy thing,” says Mr. Schaefer, the debate team’s captain. Rather, it is part of the culture of a school whose head is known to be a former champion debater.

Mr. Schaefer is lucky. His mother, a state debate champion in New York in the 1960s, got him interested in the subject that he might well continue when he goes to college. He is leaning toward a major in economics at Northwestern University, where, he says, debate is strong.

Jamilla Thompson, a DCUDL champion debater at Cardozo who hopes to major in journalism at the New School University in New York and become a history professor one day, is lucky in a far different way by overcoming obstacles. One of 11 children in a family that recently was evicted from their Southeast D.C. home, she now lives with her father and somewhat manages to stay focused.

“I think I’m a good arguer,” she says, modestly enough.

As the top team in the DCUDL, she and her debate partner, Laura John-Toussaint, were invited to a high school tournament hosted by Harvard University in February 2003. Last summer, Miss Thompson had a scholarship to debate camp at Catholic University. Veteran of some 15 East Coast tournaments, the team practices after school several times a week with the aid of a computer and cartons of research papers.

Peer pressure and negative distractions of teenage life don’t concern her. “I’m in a different world. I would rather talk about philosophy, politics and social issues,” she says.

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