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The City Journals

Copper Hills speech and debate triumphs at state

May 09, 2019 01:31PM ● By Jet Burnham

Copper Hills High School wins the division 6A Speech and Debate state championship. (Photo courtesy Mathew Walker/CHHS)

By Jet Burnham | [email protected]

Daud Mumin is passionate about controversial topics, politics and activism. He found his niche when he joined the Copper Hills High School speech and debate team last year.

“I’ve always been a fairly outspoken person,” said Mumin, who serves as team vice-president. “So, I decided I might as well rack up a few trophies while I’m being opinionated.”

Mumin has done just that, contributing to the team’s first-place win in the 6A state debate tournament this March. Each team member earns points in their individual event to contribute to the final team total. The speech and debate program offers a variety of events that test skills in research, presentation, critical thinking, debate and thinking fast on your feet.

“Ultimately, there’s so much to debate that almost anybody who wants to do the activity can find something that they enjoy,” said Matthew Walker, the team's coach.

With support from Walker and an assigned peer mentor, each team member finds his or her niche. Walker said because he includes students who might not fit the debate “mold,” he has created one of the most diverse teams in the state. He credits the diversity as one of the reasons the team performs so well at competitions. 

There are all sorts of personalities on the team.

Anastacia Tennant, an admitted introvert, said she joined debate “to get out of my shell and possibly gain a few smarts doing so.” She transformed from lonely middle-schooler to captain of the Lincoln-Douglas debate team.

“Now I have a lot of amazing friends, and I’ve gained a lot of knowledge,” said Tennant. “I’m not a lonely Goth kid anymore.”

Erin Howell, public forum captain, believes there’s something for everyone—all personalities and interests—in debate. Initially, she had no interest in politics but has since developed a desire to be politically active and use her debate skills to get people to listen to her.

“Debate helps me to find my voice and find a way to effectively use it,” said Howell. “So when I hear things that I don’t like, I know ways that I can speak out against that that aren’t just like a bunch of angry teenagers yelling at each other.”

Matthew Cuthbert grew up in a home with lively political discussions. He joined debate because of “a mixture of interest in political activism and arrogance.” What he found was a way to articulate his ideas and influence others.

“Debate gives us a forum to be able to express our opinions in ways that people will actually understand,” he said.

As an intern for Rep. Kim Coleman, he contributed to Coleman’s research for her legislative action calling for free speech on college campuses. Cuthbert was able to share his experiences of being at Berkeley College for a debate tournament just one week before a student was assaulted for publicly expressing opinions.

Asia Rowell said through the large amounts of research required to prepare for debate topics, debate students know more than the average citizen about world events, politics and economics. She believes her generation should be more politically active now because it is their future that will be affected by decisions world leaders are making now.

“This is when we have to step in and take ahold of our own future instead of letting the older generations, who’ve been through this, take ahold of something that they’re not even going to be involved in,” said Rowell.

Students at CHHS took action March 14 of last year to participate in the national Walk Out for Gun Reform.

“Kids in this building couldn’t vote, but we still chose to do that part of the work,” said Mumin.

He believes debating a problem opens doors to solutions. Debate students learn to civilly engage in productive discussions to address an issue and to allow the other side to express their opinions without resorting to personal attacks or insults.

In some events, debate students must be familiar with both sides of a topic because the flip of a coin determines if they are the affirmative or negative team for that round. Rowell said researching both sides helps her see the whole issue and be more open-minded.

“That’s what the challenge is about debate,” said Rowell. “We are forced to agree with things that we may not agree with personally.”

CHHS has finished state in first place for the last three years. However, when its speech and debate program began in 2013, the team debuted in last place. Its performance improved when students took accountability for their team.

“We are 110 percent a student-led program,” said Rowell, who serves as the team’s president. “[Coach] signs us up for tournaments; we win the tournaments.”

Walker credits the program’s design to Scott Odekirk, his predecessor responsible for rocketing CHHS out of its last-place ranking several years ago.

“He set up a system that works beautifully,” said Walker, who took over as team coach three years ago. “It’s that, pretty much, let the students run everything.”

New team members are trained up by veteran members. Every new student in Walker’s Debate 1 class is paired with a Debate 2 student who helps them be successful—by introducing them to the speech and debate community, easing their adjustment into high school and even arranging academic tutors when necessary.

“I think keeping that mentorship program, where the students are really in control, is what ultimately has made it so we won last year and this year as well,” said Walker.