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The City Journals

Cottonwood speech, debate students preparing for a season—either online, or in-person

Nov 17, 2020 01:30PM ● By Julie Slama

A Cottonwood member of the speech and debate team leans in to watch the sparring of fellow debaters. (Photo courtesy of Nizhoni Tsosie)

By Julie Slama | [email protected]

In a world of looking at the positive side of things, Cottonwood High speech and debate teacher Adam Wilkins is doing just that. 

He is planning the school’s first virtual debate tournament.

“There’s a lot of logistics with judges, virtual training, preparing students’ skills set to speak or debate over a Zoom call with just seeing their face and not having body language—it makes it more about the speech itself,” he said. “It’s all a fun challenge. The students’ safety is, has to be, and will be my primary concern so if teaching them and having them have this experience is virtual, I’m happy to oblige and make it work for them.”

While Wilkins prepares for this tournament, he still is teaching about 50 speech and debate students in person as well as students online. It is one of his largest teams despite half his team graduating last spring.

He also is placing more emphasis on skills, including a new one—how to speak through masks.

“Masks aren’t going away here for a while so we need our students to be able to communicate with them in what is now called the ‘new normal,’” Wilkins said. “I think with COVID, it has given me a chance to re-evaluate what and how I’m teaching and providing them in class. It has taken the urgency out of things and given us a chance to slow down and evaluate to become better speakers and communicators. We used to be go-go-go and get going before a competition, but now we’re able to dive into our speaking and organizational skills.”

Those may include skills such as articulation and projection and addressing what makes a better speaker.

Wilkins said that he is encouraging his students to speak about topics that interest them.

“Students are feeling more muzzled, for lack of a better term, with masks during this pandemic. They have reason to talk, to express their opinion. Students want to be heard and validated, especially now when the year 2020 will go down as one of the worst years of the last 100 or in their generation politically, socially, economically in the U.S. and in the world. These kids have grown up a lot in the last year,” he said.

Many of the speeches he expects students to address this year may focus on the year’s headlines: social justice, global pandemic, world-wide recession, and U.S. elections.

“It’s a world of uncertainty and they’ll talk about those issues—and the new ways we’re facing this world,” he said.

Historically, Cottonwood’s forensics team performs well, being amongst the top for the past dozen or so years.

Last year, Cottonwood placed second in region last February and was already competing at state at Wasatch High when Gov. Gary Herbert put schools on soft closure in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

“I don’t know what in-person debate looks like this year. We will hope for the best and plan for the worst,” Wilkins said. “The kids are excited and are ready to work hard and do their best.”


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