The mere idea of debating on stage may cause some to break out in hives, but students are usually far from tongue-tied by the time they take their spots behind the podium, say local high school debate coaches.
“Debate is mostly a research activity with a public speaking element,” says Casey Harrigan, director of debate at Michigan State University. Harrigan, a former debate champion at MSU, was one of several policy debate pros who attended East Kentwood High School’s recent Debate Day.
The annual gathering for debate students and coaches from West Michigan schools introduces the procedure of debate to new team members and helps experienced debaters hone their skills. Two students from MSU and two from Mona Shores High School argued foreign policy in front of students from Grand Rapids City High School, Kenowa Hills, Northview, Byron Center, Wayland and Forest Hills Central high schools. Students had the chance to evaluate their performances and offer feedback.
Student debaters must be well-versed on all sides of an issue before they are prepared for competition and those research skills are valuable for just about any career — not to mention everyday life, Harrigan notes. “It teaches them to really research and understand a position,” he says,
An Effort to Grow Debate
Even at the high school level, debate involves a grasp on complicated subjects. Debaters considered this 2013-2014 national debate resolution: that the United States federal government should substantially increase its economic engagement toward Cuba, Mexico or Venezuela. Issues raised included global poverty, dehumanization and nuclear war.
“The purpose is to build a community of curious and scholarly students who love learning and love a challenge and love the intensity of policy debate,” says Ellen Zwarensteyn, teacher and director of debate at East Kentwood High School. “I hope they fall in love with debate.”
Zwarensteyn says debate experience increases vocabulary, translates to higher test scores and even leads to better behavior. East Kentwood has a long history of state champions, and has both an elective debate class and a competitive team which will debate in 12 competitions this year. The partnership with MSU is part of an effort to increase debating events in Michigan.
Debate Day provides new teachers and coaches with resources to lead successful teams.
Coach Taylor Sanchez, an East Kentwood High School 2011 graduate, says her experience on the debate team in 10th through 12th grades, taught her how to better express herself. “I learned how to communicate my thoughts effectively,” she says.
Northview High School sophomore Tyler Nichols says he hopes debate will help him toward a career in politics. “It’s really helped a lot,” he says of Debate Day. “I was a little unsure about how a debate worked. Now I’m more comfortable with how to do it.”