Friday, December 6, 2013

That's Debatable...

Never, ever, as a high school student, would I have volunteered to stand up in front of strangers from another school and half-improvise an eight-minute rebuttal and argument. Never, ever, ever. It would have been the stuff of nightmares. But last Wednesday I coached 13 high school students who did just that, and I have to say, I am so proud of each and every one of them. 

The experience was a first for all of us--though not for all our opponents! After two weeks of preparation--time in which we not only had to learn the rules of Queensland style debate and the skills of constructing a case and offering and answering rebuttals and points of information, but also research the topic: Poetry is beautiful, but science is what matters. It was a pretty steep learning curve, and as students headed down the hallways of an unfamiliar school to find their rooms, the adrenaline was pumping. 

As I rotated through the rooms where my students were engaged, I saw them speaking confidently, presenting the arguments they’d crafted, and doing some quick critical thinking. (“Of course Robert Frost would say poetry is important--he was a poet!”). And afterwards, they were all still standing--and even better--discussing where their opponents had equivocated and avoided addressing issues, dissecting their own performances, and noting what others had done that was worth emulating. 

The topic of “ethical appeal,” which the 11th graders learned in their English class, came up: convincing your audience that you are an authority, as well as likeable and worthy of respect--someone they want to listen to. There’s the opponent who is knowledgeable and articulate, but just comes across as, well, not someone you’d search out for an opinion. As a judge remarked on one student’s sheet, “Be confident, not aggressive.”

I reminded them of what I’d taught them about public speaking in 10th grade--the importance of being much more clear and overt about organization in speaking than in writing because if a listener misses something, she can’t go back and check it.

And then there’s my favorite aspect of debate--that students have to prepare both a negative and an affirmative case. What if we all tried to figure out what made our opponents tick to the point that we could argue their case if we had to? It’s a kind of intellectual empathy--in all to short supply in most daily life debates I hear, whether online, on TV, or in person. 

So here’s looking at you, kids--the next generation of all of our democracies. See you Monday and Tuesday for preparation, and then Wednesday when we’ll hammer out “It is irresponsible of Japan to host the Olympics with Fukushima so precarious.”

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