By Wendy Koch
In an era of “fake” news and incivility, it’s especially important that our students learn to become good citizens. Speech and debate can help by encouraging them to be polite, respectful, articulate and knowledgeable.
Attend a weekend tournament, and you’ll see why. Students arrive Saturday by 8 a.m., dressed in suits. They intelligently and persuasively discuss current events, ethical questions, social issues, history or literature.
They thank judges for volunteering. They applaud competitors, often with words of encouragement. They don’t take out their cell phones when others speak. Rather, they listen.
I’ve judged speech events for the past two years, and I’m impressed by the talent and decorum of these students. In our stormy and uncertain times, they give me hope for the future.
George Mason High School has increased its commitment to its speech and debate team, which began as a club with a volunteer coach in late 2013 and has grown rapidly. Last year, the team attracted more than 30 students, most of whom were freshmen and sophomores.
This academic year, principal Matt Hills and athletic director Julie Bravin have hired coaches to work with students in two debate events — Public Forum and Lincoln Douglas — and in speech, which includes seven events at the local level.
Mason is also expanding the team’s reach. Thus far, the team has competed mostly in the Washington Arlington Catholic Forensic League (WACFL), which includes private and public schools in northern Virginia, Washington, D.C., and Maryland.
The team has begun to make a name for itself. Last year, its students won medals at WACFL’s local tournaments. At its annual tournament, two sophomores placed first in junior varsity Public Forum. Another sophomore placed first in a speech event and went on to become a finalist at the National Catholic Forensic League’s annual tournament in May, which drew 3,000 students from across the country to Louisville, Ky. A sophomore also won a first-place speech award at a national tournament hosted by George Mason University in December.
This year, for the first time, the Mason team will also compete in the Virginia High School League, which holds a few tournaments in the spring semester. Just like athletic teams, its members will vie for a state title. If they qualify, they can also compete in the annual National Speech and Debate Association Tournament, the largest such event in the United States.
So what exactly is speech and debate? In Public Forum, a pair of students debates both sides of a political issue with another pair, using fact-based arguments. In Lincoln Douglas, an individual debates an ethical issue or moral quandary with another student.
Speech offers a broad range of events. Students can deliver speeches written by others (Declamation) or by themselves (Original Oratory.) They can speak off the cuff on general topics (Impromptu) or current political events (Extemporaneous.) They can, as individuals or as a pair, craft a 10-minute performance based on a book, short story, play or poems (Dramatic Interpretation, Duo Interpretation, Oral Interpretation).
Speech and debate gives students a voice. It enables them to speak out on topics that interest them, and it teaches them valuable skills. They learn to research, organize, and present material in clear and compelling fashion. As a former journalist, I appreciate that they learn there are two sides to almost every story. They also learn — especially in speech — to improve diction, volume, intonation, pacing and pausing.
“The right word may be effective, but no word was ever as effective as a rightly timed pause,” Mark Twain once said. He also said effective speaking requires practice: “It usually takes me more than three weeks to prepare a good impromptu speech.”
These skills would be a welcome relief to anyone who’s ever gone into a cold sweat when asked to make a presentation. I have a nephew who joined his high school’s speech and debate team as a freshman, because he was nervous and would stutter if he had to speak in front of a group. By the end of freshman year, he stopped stuttering, and by the end of high school, he was a speech champion who won a college speech scholarship.
We know that effective public speaking can be key to career success. This is one reason why, according to a 1999 limited data analysis by the Wall Street Journal, some colleges give an admissions bump to students active in forensics.
Speech and debate can prepare students to be well-informed leaders of the future — something essential for any democracy. It was late in arriving at an impressive International Baccalaureate school like Mason, but now that Mason has a team firmly in place, I hope students seize the opportunity. Students interested in the speech and debate team can reach out to Kishwar Rafique at [email protected]
Wendy Koch is a volunteer parent judge for George Mason High School’s speech and debate team.