Competitive High School Debate – Why Isn’t Your School Doing It?

Leslie Moeller encourages student participation in the arena of ideas.

Let’s start with full disclosure. I’ve been a debate coach for precisely eight months. My school, like many of yours, teaches debate as part of our middle and upper school curriculum. I started our in-school debate program four years ago. I also have plenty of experience arguing (just ask my husband, he says it’s one of my core competencies). I am an attorney by training and had the privilege of being a member of a successful international moot court team in law school. But in the world of competitive high school debate, I’m a newbie.

Prudence would suggest that I wait a couple years, get a few successes and a lot more experience under my belt before I deign to give advice. In diving into the debate world, however, I’ve discovered that few if any other classical schools are involved. This means that I may have as much or more experience as any other classical debate coach. It also means that as a group of schools that emphasizes logical analysis and persuasive speaking, we ought to be ashamed of ourselves. Our students should be setting the bar in debate not avoiding the arena. They need it and more importantly, the forensic world needs us.

Starting with the basics, the National Forensic League or NFL (www.nflonline.org) sets the national debate rules, selects the topics which all the state organizations use, and hosts the national tournament. One of the great advantages of debate is that it’s one of the few competitive arenas where our students compete against and are competitive with every other high school student. There’s no private school league or small school category. If your students advance to the state or national level, they compete at the state or national tournament.

Each state also has a state forensic league that holds local tournaments, usually several a month. Since the state leagues follow the national rules and topics, all high school students argue the same topics in the same events across the country.

Unlike athletics, however, success at the state level does not feed into the national tournament. Here’s where it gets a bit complicated. Each state has its own point system whereby students earn points through success at local tournaments. The state sets the number of points necessary to qualify for the state tournament. The NFL, on the other hand, has its own point system whereby simple participation in debate events (as opposed to success) earns points. In debate, for example, a student earns three NFL points for a lost round and six points for a win. A student must accumulate 25 points to qualify to compete in a local, district-qualifying tournament. Each region, and there are many regions within each state, will have one district qualifying tournament sometime in the second semester. Depending upon how many teams compete at the district tournament, the top one to four teams at the tournament will qualify to compete at the national tournament, which usually takes place in June.

There are a number of forms of competitive debate. If you’ve been exposed to college level debate then you’re familiar with Policy Debate or CX and its idiotic practice of super-fast speaking (also known as “spreading”). I can’t imagine why anyone would teach a student to do this or why any judge would reward a team that did, but it’s the standard in CX and a good reason to stay away from this debate event. Two other formats have issues as well: Lincoln/Douglass which is highly stylized and folled with debate jargon, and Congressional Debate (or Student Congress) which follows a mock legislative format rather than traditional debate. That leaves one last debate event in which every classical Rhetoric School should compete: Public Forum. This event was added just a few years ago, primarily as a response to the direction taken by CX and L/D debate.

The national Public Forum guide describes Public Forum as follows:

Public Forum Debate is a team event that advocates or rejects a position posed by the monthly resolution topic. The clash of ideas must be communicated in a manner persuasive to the non-specialist or “citizen judge”, i.e. a member of the American jury. The debate should:

  • Display solid logic, lucid reasoning, and depth of analysis

  • Utilize evidence without being driven by it

  • Present a clash of ideas by countering/ refuting arguments of the opposing team (rebuttal)

  • Communicate ideas with clarity, organization, eloquence, and professional decorum

In other words, in this form of debate, students strive to be persuasive to the average citizen and are encouraged to use their speaking skills and logic to do so. The format of the debate is similar to what most of our schools probably use in their in-house programs and is easily found on the NFL website.

Topics for Public Forum change monthly and are announced on the first day of the month preceding the month in which they will be argued. So far this year, my students have argued whether failed states or stable states pose the greatest threat to the U.S., whether or not President Obama’s plan for Afghanistan is in the U.S.’s best interest, and whether organized political lobbying in the U.S. does more harm than good. They are currently researching whether affirmative action to promote equal opportunity is justified. It’s a pretty heady experience to spend a Saturday watching high school students voluntarily engage each other on topics like these. Oh, did I mention the small detail that, in Texas at least, debate tournaments usually start about 4:00 on a Friday a ernoon, run until around 10:00 p.m., start again on Saturday at 8:00 a.m., and continue often until 10:00 Saturday night? Of course, if you’re there that late, your team has done well, and the adrenaline will make up for the lost sleep. Some states, such as Virginia, have single-day mid-week tournaments, so you may get off a little easier than I have.

If you want to start a team, and you should, you need to do three things. First, get on your state website right away (Google “Forensic League” and your state name), and find out if there are
any local tournaments remaining this spring. If there are, go watch one. Be aware that in Public Forum, there are usually three to five preliminary rounds then the top teams “break” based on their win/loss record and their speaker points. Usually the tournament will break to quarter finals, which means the top eight teams will move forward, and from that point it becomes single elimination. Check the schedule, usually posted on a website, and go to the later rounds to see the best debaters. Take some interested students with you if you can. If you want to look like you know what you’re doing, head to the cafeteria of the school where the tournament is being held. That’s where all the students hang out between events (and forensic tournaments have lots of events, not just debate) and it’s also where the room assignments are posted for the next round of each event.

Second, schedule an organizational meeting this spring. Here’s where you can learn from my mistakes. I waited until school started to organize the team. Big mistake. At the start of school, everything is new and exciting and a bit overwhelming. Students have a hard time focusing let alone finding the time to research debate topics. Have your organizational meeting before summer break. Put together your teams, and let them know that they will need to start work in August. Plan at least four working meetings in August, and put them on everyone’s calendar. When the September topic is announced on August 1st, your team will be ready to go. The goal is to have their research done and their arguments written before school starts. That way, they are ready to argue in September.

One of the great advantages of a smaller school is that our students get to have a much wider variety of experiences, but that means my debaters are also basketball players and actors. September is a great month to accumulate debate points before all the other events get going. The good news is that for those who are good at it, debate is addictive.

Third, come to the SCL Summer Conference. I’ll be presenting a seminar on the how’s and why’s of starting a debate program and would be delighted to share more details with you then. We’ll talk about how to match students in a team, the three stages every team goes through in learning to debate, how to research and prepare topics, and some of those other forensic events such as prose, poetry, original oratory and dramatic interpretation. More importantly, we’ll explore why it’s our obligation to get out students out into the world of forensics to influence the debate (literally and figuratively).

We started our team with a single, once- a-week meeting during the lunch/activity hour. We quickly found out that in the big public high schools, including the reigning national champion high school against whom we debate regularly, debate is an elective that meets four or five times a week. We added two Sunday afternoon work sessions when the students were first getting the feel for debate. We also have a vigorous email exchange between meetings. I hope to upgrade our program to a three-day-a-week elective next year, but, even on our meager schedule, two of our teams have qualified for the Texas state tournament. One of our teams will be arguing at our district- qualifying tournament next weekend in a bid to secure a spot at Nationals. Next year, we hope to see you there.

 
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