Urban high schoolers find work on debate team is difficult but rewarding

By Erin Richards, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

When Teressa Shaw stands to make an argument, watch out.

The Rufus King High School senior speaks loud and fast, and gesticulates a lot, when she wants to change federal policy — in this case at a debate competition where she argued for more government funding for ocean fisheries.

That kind of articulation is key to high school policy debate, a format within speech and debate activities that comes with its own subculture, lingo and in Milwaukee, a dedicated group of diverse teenage devotees.

“Our Facebook chats are very long,” Shaw said after she and her partner, King junior Mae Edwards, won the Milwaukee Debate League city championship tournament this month.

“It’s like, ‘I think I can destroy capitalism faster than you can and here’s why.'”

High schools nationwide have long offered debate teams, but many programs at urban schools were abandoned starting in the 1980s, coinciding with budget cuts and middle-class families moving to suburban schools.

But over the past decade, efforts have been underway to re-establish debate leagues at urban high schools serving mostly low-income students. The Milwaukee Debate League, which started with a grant from the Einhorn Family Charitable Trust in 2006 and incorporated as a nonprofit in 2011, is a product of those efforts. It oversees debate activities in 22 Milwaukee-area middle and high schools.

“The reason we do it is not so much because we want to see debate for debate’s sake, but because we see debate as a tool to help urban kids close the achievement gap,” said Linda Listrom, executive director of the National Association for Urban Debate Leagues, headquartered in Chicago.

That’s because policy debate is hard.

It requires researching academically challenging material, reasoning, making arguments supported by evidence, taking notes and problem-solving when someone argues against you.

Studies have shown debate coincides with higher rates of literacy, and urban debaters are three times more likely to graduate from high school than their non-debating peers.

How It Works

Students participating in policy debate receive a broad, universal theme each year. Then they construct oral arguments either for or against an official national resolution. For 2014: The federal government should substantially increase its nonmilitary exploration and/or development of the Earth’s oceans.

A packet of information with cases for and against the resolution provides fodder for students to write their arguments. Novice debaters stick to what’s in the packet. Varsity debaters can scour the Internet and libraries to find other research to support their arguments.

They can even go rogue and make an argument that is only tangentially related to the official resolution, but they have to inform the other team about what they intend to argue and what research they used.

At the competition, two students on a team each present their arguments and then cross-examine the two students on the other team. A judge scores the quality of the arguments, cross-questioning and presentation style. Everything is timed. Hence, the speed-talking to present as much information as possible.

Another twist: teams generally have to argue both in support of and against the resolution during the competition.

Why would students put in so many hours crafting detailed, academic arguments? Especially when they might be loath to work on an English paper that called for the same?

“Because an adult (judge) has to listen to them,” said Joni Chmiel, executive director of the Milwaukee Debate League. “There’s a huge myth in our community that teens don’t want adults in their worlds. But here you have role models. It’s safe. And it’s cool to be smart.”

Solomon Demby, a sophomore at Vincent High School, was one of about 50 students from 12 Milwaukee-area high schools who competed in the league’s city championship tournament last weekend at the downtown offices of Michael Best & Friedrich.

Demby escaped with his family to the United States from Sierra Leone when he was in elementary school to skirt the violence of the blood diamond wars. He said he’s honing his research, problem-solving and argumentative skills because he’d like to return to his country and run for president one day.

“The problem I have is explaining things, and working on my pronunciation,” Demby said.

The two highest-scoring varsity teams from Milwaukee at the competition now advance to the Urban Debate National Championship Tournament in Los Angeles in April. Both teams were made up of King students: Shaw and Edwards, and also Thomas Linn and Patrick Willett.

“Debate is the most intellectually stimulating activity I’ve ever done,” said Shaw, who comes from a large family where it’s common to argue about politics and society at the kitchen table and on car trips.

Shaw remembers her father reading Austrian and British philosopher Karl Popper to her as a kid. But today she’s developed her own influences. Left to her own devices, Shaw will often find a way to work feminism into her debates, or arguments that prioritize diversity.

“We research all of these crazy impacts we don’t know anything about,” she said. “We’re kids! But to see high schoolers talking about this stuff is really cool.”

Urban Debate

About 8,400 students participated in urban debate programs nationally in 2013-’14. The National Association for Urban Debate Leagues hopes to grow to 15,000 students in the next two to five years.

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Erin Richards covers K-12 education in urban and suburban Milwaukee, as well as state politics related to education issues.