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Virginia Journal of Education


No Debate

Newport News teacher says that speech and debate programs offer numerous academic benefits.


by Deon Garner

“Speak to your soul with power” is the motto of the Warwick High School (Newport News) Championship Speech and Debate program. The idea of speaking to one’s own soul while communicating with others is the driving force behind the team’s success. If you do not believe it, then how can you expect others to believe it? Competitive speech and debate has been the cornerstone of my life, and having been involved with speech activities for the past 17-plus years has been a gift. It is a gift that I wish to give to each and every student that I teach, mentor or come to know. My current work as the director of Warwick’s program has afforded me the opportunity to tell just how important these activities are.

Competitive speaking events utilize a set of skills in a manner unmatched by other academic activities. Students have regular practice in critical thinking, extemporaneous speaking, intense and focused preparation, note-taking, and care listening. These are all areas where almost all teachers know that a majority of their students could improve, regardless of discipline. The key to the burgeoning success of speech and debate as academic tools is that these (and other) skills are practiced in tandem with one another, creating a comprehensive context that embodies learning from all perspectives. When our Warwick students compete, the focus of each event for each student is skill-building.

Lamar Credle is a former member of Warwick’s speech and debate program and now a junior business major at Saint Paul’s College in Lawrenceville. When asked about his Warwick experience, Lamar says, “Debate sharpened my vocabulary and it helped develop my social skills. It taught me how to speak intellectually, and it changed points of view I had in the world.  Debate was another great way to express my feelings.” Once Lamar believed and felt his own personal power and confidence, he began to win.

Winning is not the only benefit of competitive speech events. In addition to the trophy, plaque or gavel, there is a much greater award, one that transcends the physical pieces. Speaking activities close the achievement gap perhaps more quickly and more effectively than any other activity, club or sport. Warwick has had students participate in debate who came from the school’s International Baccalaureate program, and students who were placed in special education classes. When they all come together, the dividing line is erased. At a typical debate or speech tournament, there is a beautiful mix of white, black, brown and yellow—skin color is not a consideration. How well you can speak your mind and pour out your soul are the only factors in determining the winners in these competitions. Students select literary prose and poetry that reflect who they are as young people, and they write original speeches that connect them with larger society. Debaters advance argumentation that demonstrates their inner beliefs on various societal issues. These activities do more than just create articulate speakers; they create people who care about themselves and the world around them. They are given a voice to express that concern. The salutatorian’s voice is no louder than the football player’s voice. The girl’s voice is no clearer than the boy’s voice. Debate and public speaking activities are equalizers; all participants are given the same opportunities.

It is my personal hope that all teachers and administrators in all schools see and recognize the value of incorporating competitive speech and debate into the school’s activities. Schools that host active speech and debate programs will experience a level of success and exposure that is not available to schools that do not. Here are three tangible benefits of hosting active and competitive speech and debate programs:

Increase in corporate and community sponsorship. The idea of paying for extended trips within or outside of the state is becoming unaffordable in our time of budget cuts. Speech and debate teams draw from a cadre of sponsors that may not regularly support the school. Warwick High School has received thousands of dollars in financial sponsorship from law firms, elected officials and professional organizations. Now these corporate sponsors are a part of the school’s financial and social network; they help to uphold the school in a financial sense.

Preparing students to serve as student speakers and ambassadors. Student representation at conferences, meetings and events is a direct result of what the school does for the student body. These opportunities demonstrate the school’s commitment to exposing its students to a myriad of professional venues. Speech and debate prepares students for these opportunities. At outside-of-school events, professionals generally do not expect students to perform to the level of adults when placed side-by-side. It is almost seen as “cute” to incorporate student participation. However a principal who has, at his or her disposal, a group of self-confident, well-prepared and very articulate students is a reflection of the school’s dedication to that preparation. Administrators can and will use students in speaking engagements locally and abroad.

Regional and national recognition as a school body. Consider a school’s athletic program. On the whole, teams compete against another team in a particular game or match. A football team may participate in its local district and advance to regional or statewide play. However, speech and debate, in many instances, have the chance at numerous tournaments throughout the year. In the state of Virginia, competitors are limited to 16 competitions before district, regional and statewide competition. However, the nature of a debate or speech match is actually tournament-style; different schools come together to compete on the same day at the same time. So, a student is able to debate or speak four, five or six times within one competition; the experience and practice are unmatched. Basketball or volleyball teams may have some opportunity to travel to other states to be a part of invitational competitions. Speech and debate takes the school name beyond state boundaries into a national arena. There are national speech and debate honor societies and organizations that house resources and networking opportunities for students, educators and parents alike. The school is bolstered when coaches sit on national advisory boards for speech and debate. The school’s name is advanced when sponsors are recognized for coaching service and success.

Competitive speech is not only a hidden treasure; it lies at the end of a rainbow not followed, by most. Warwick High School has followed that rainbow and has enjoyed the rewards. As a program director for six years, I can truly say that speech and debate have added to the value and image of Warwick High School. It bolsters the image of the school while simultaneously opening the door to a new and unexplored area of exposure and networking. At Warwick, we look forward to continuing our work in competitive academic speaking. It is truly the gold that we are all seeking.

Garner, a member of the Newport News Education Association, teaches Honors Debate, Spanish and AVID (Advancement Via Individual Determination) at Warwick High School.

 


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