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The City Journals

Murray Fifth-, Sixth-grade Students Learn Debating Skills

Apr 07, 2016 03:04PM ● By Julie Slama

By Julie Slama | [email protected]

Murray - Liberty sixth-grader Emma Eisert decided it was time to beat her brother—at debate.

“My brother is pretty good at debate, so I wanted to learn how to beat him,” Emma said about joining her school’s after-school program.

Sixth-grader Relena Pattison said when her older sister joined, she started beating her in their arguments. So now Relena decided to join so she could learn more skills to challenge her sister.

“I’ve learned it’s better to pause, then to say ‘ah’ or just talk with filler words,” she said. “I’ve learned to become a better speaker.”

Classmate Zoe Welch said she wanted something fun to do.

“It’s like a sport—something to challenge myself and get better at,” she said.

Sixth-grader Megan Alexander said that it has helped her approach arguments and think of the conversation from both sides’ perspectives.

“Before it was arguing, and girls always beat the boys, but now it’s also understanding it,” she said.

These are some of the skills that first-year coach Judy Mahosky has taught students in preparing students for the April 29 spar that will have 12 elementary teams—two from each Murray School District school—compete at McMillan Elementary.

“I want students to see the argument from both sides and be able to identify the pros and cons of it,” she said. “They are learning how to speak confidently, articulate their ideas and be supportive teammates.”

District Debate Coordinator Angie Thompson said that the teams will face other schools in three spars and receive pointers and scores from members of the Murray High debate team, who will be the judges. Certificates will be awarded to all participants, as no overall winner will be declared.

“It’s an introduction to debate, a chance to spar, but not a Lincoln-Douglas approach where they spend hours researching,” she said. “They’re learning how to speak in front of people with good eye contact and thinking quickly on their feet presenting both sides of view.”

Thompson said this also translates well into their argumentative or persuasive writing skills as well as class discussions.

Through the years, the topics students have debated have been age-appropriate such as should students wear school uniforms or should school be year round. Students learn the topic for each spar at the district competition.

The format of the contest is to allow the teams to have three minutes to prepare after learning the topic. When the match begins, the affirmative first speaker begins with a 90-second opening argument. The negative side follows with 90 seconds. Then, there are two minutes to prepare the “clash” or sparring and when the two-minute session begins, the second speaker on each team takes over. Then, the teams close with the first negative speaker presenting points for one minute before the first affirmative speaker closes the debate.

McMillan teacher and coach Keira Van Beekum said that through their nine weeks of practice, they don’t just practice sparring, but also have a good zinger or hook for the opening. She also encouraged students to talk to parents and friends about issues so they could gain more insight and approaches.

“I taught them OREO—state an opinion, give a reason, then an example, and finally, restate their opinion, all while standing in front of someone, maintaining eye contact and not fidgeting and speaking loudly and clearly,” she said.

She has given them practice sparring matches such as should driver’s licenses be required for bicyclists or should electronics be banned in classrooms.

“During the district tournament, the high school debate team judges give good feedback to the kids from their speaking skills to their logic in their arguments,” she said. “It’s sparring, not really debate, so during that time, they can interrupt the other team, but we also give them a chance to speak.” 

Besides teaching students skills, Van Beekum, who has coached for close to 10 years, said she’s seen changes in students.

“It’s a real confidence booster,” she said. “I’ve had some very shy students who are so quiet, and when they learn they can speak and share their thoughts, it has become an opportunity for them to grow. I’ve had seniors in high school come back to me and say they’re on the high school team, and their interest peaked here at our elementary sparring tournament. It allows kids of all different backgrounds and personalities to come together and have fun and learn.”