Friday, September 20, 2013

Of Debate, Geese, and the Gander

Those who know me well have my full permission to guffaw at the idea of me coaching debate. I'm doing a little guffawing myself. Harmony-loving, confrontation-adverse, zero-experience me? 

When I coached volleyball, I brought to it years of experience with the sport and with being coached. When I started teaching, I brought to it years of experience with learning and with being taught. When I volunteered to coach debate at the beginning of this school year, I brought only the conviction that if there are students so interested in spending their free time practicing research and civil discourse (two things that seem sadly lacking in current American political life and in online interactions) that they are asking me to please coach them--why would I refuse them the opportunity? (An opportunity unavailable to them for the last several years.) 

(Also, as the English-teacher chair of my school’s joint English/social studies department, I’ve been aware that my lack of knowledge about this form of public speaking which I’m requiring my social studies colleagues to teach and assess in their classes is not an asset to my leadership. Here’s a way to corner myself into mastering something that will improve my professional credibility.)

At the initial meeting of debate coaches in our league, not only was I the only woman present in a group of nine, but also I found myself, when I dared open my mouth, asking such very basic questions as, “How many people are on a debate team?” (Answer: three.) Did I feel self-conscious and out of my depth? A little.

So I spent most of the meeting finding the Queensland Debating Union Handbook online. (That was after I’d asked what style of debate we used.)

How could I not be excited about that handbook’s statement of the aim of debating?
  • The ability to communicate with clarity, confidence, and fluency.
  • The enjoyment of teamwork and friendly competition.
  • Informed understanding of issues.
  • Tolerance which admits the validity of other points of view.

How could I not be excited that 12 students expressed interest? (And here I was wondering if we were going to have the three necessary to field one debate team!)

How could I not experience mild terror when I can’t even answer their questions about when, where, how, and how often we’re going to meet to practice?

But reading the 85 pages of that handbook (and plenty of other information the very supportive chair of the debate coaches’ meeting emailed out), I thrill all over again at the life skills I’ll get to help students practice. And at the fact that there are 12 students at school who want to practice them. (And at the helpfulness of the handbook in spelling out exactly how to structure team preparation and teach those skills.)

So I’ll be doing a lot of reading up on debate between now and December when the debate season starts. But, hey, I’m an English teacher--I should be good at research and reading. Forget the “Unlearn and Relearn” parts of my blog name--this is just plain learning. A little scary to think the students to whom I teach what I learn will then be judged in public competition. 

But a little challenge and real-life accountability is good for the soul. At least, that’s what I tell my students. I’ll report back some time in the winter and let you know if it’s true.

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