One of the most engaging activities I do is coach high school speech and debate. I was fortunate to have founded the Brecksville-Broadview Heights modern debate program in 2008, along with Mark McCandless and Lloyd Yeh. In 2013-2014, Revere High School Principal Phil King asked me to take over as coach/adviser for the Revere High School Program. Revere was down to five students in November 2013. Today it is a program with 45 high schoolers and 20+ middle schoolers.
Colleagues and helpers have made us successful at Revere. We have terrific support from our speech and debate boosters. Right now we have three college assistants, Ammar Abidi, David Burnett and Amelia Mainzer, giving us a huge boost in the coaching area as well. We have six seniors in the program this year, the most in recent Revere memory in the program.
(ASIDE – If you ever have doubts about the ability of today’s students to be tomorrow’s leaders, here’s a challenge: Come with me any Saturday to a speech and debate tournament and see what other coaches, parents, and I see in our young speakers and debaters.)
My personal strengths are on the speaking side of high school speech/debate, but – as fate would have it – Revere has had a traditionally powerful debate program. Within a year’s time at Revere, I became convinced that one of the best “benefits” I could provide to my students was to make them write their own cases and Congressional Debate speeches. I apply this to each and every debater and debate team in all the types of debate we coach at Revere, Lincoln Douglas, Public Forum and Congress.
Other HS programs do their own “school” case for debate resolutions. Only one or two members of the team research and write, and the other team members follow their lead. So if you hear a “PRO” case in a public forum debate tournament from “Team A” of a particular school, you will hear the same case from “Team B” and “Team C” of the same school as well. I’m more interested in developing minds than having the “perfect” case for debating. “Skills not scores,” is the philosophy of a fellow speech and debate coach in Mentor. I agree.
So, why do I force 14, 15, 16, and 17-year-olds to write their own debate cases? Here are ome of the reasons:
- It is ideal for strengthening critical thinking skills in students. My debaters tell me how much better they write their high school essays as a result of working on debate cases. For competing in tournaments, They have to correctly analyze a topic, develop critical thinking and communication skills, compose a thesis to support their key point, develop and defend contentions supporting their key point, and do it clearly and concisely.
- It improves concentration and focus, helping to reinforce study in academic areas. Research has demonstrated that students who engage in speech and debate have GPAs up to 0.4 higher than those participating in other high school extracurricular activities. One can’t take what’s happening at one high school and say it will apply everywhere, but we certainly see that at Revere, which has an excellent and challenging academic curriculum. There are five juniors at Revere who have earned “perfect” scores of 36 on their American College Test (ACT). Three of them are in speech and debate.
- It increases the confidence, poise, and self-esteem of our debaters. Having a student standing up and speaking in front of a competitor and a judge can be daunting for a young teen. We talk a lot about overcoming nervousness and those “butterflies” before a speech or debate round in practice. The reality is simple: if a student masters the ability to stand up, argue a case he or she has developed, and then continue an argument against opposing viewpoints, that student gains life-long skills which will help her or him throughout high school, in college, and beyond.
- It gives the students a big “leg up” in college admissions. Some of my past competitors have gone on to the University of Chicago, Johns Hopkins, Penn, Washington, Harvard, and other “highly competitive’ colleges and universities, including the honors program at The Ohio State University. One of my early HS debaters is now pursuing a Ph.D. at Cal Tech. In a paper titled “Forensics and College Admissions,” Yale University Professor Minh Luong reported that “dedicated participation in drama and debate has significantly increased the success rate of college applicants at all schools which track such data. State and national award winners have a 22% to 30% higher acceptance rate at top tier colleges “
Revere is part of the Ohio Speech and Debate Association and of the National Speech and Debate Association. We had a National Championship competitor in 2016 in Lincoln Douglas debater Anthony Pignataro (now at The Ohio State University) and another in 2017 in Congressional debater Claire Jimerson. We also took two middle school students, Claire Brandewie and Drake Du, to middle school NSDA Nationals in 2017. They had NEVER debated together, yet they finished 7th in the U.S. in Public Forum debate (losing a 2-1 decision in Quarterfinals).
Hard working students, invested parents, and terrific teachers all help account for our success at Revere. But it also stems from us insisting that our students write and work with their own debate cases.