High school debaters practice their pitches

Competition seeks to introduce students to the art of arguing

March 03, 2000|By Jackie Powder | Jackie Powder,SUN STAFF

There's a good chance the most intense competition in Anne Arundel County schools yesterday was not in the school gym.

Annapolis and Arundel high schools battled it out with words and ideas in a demonstration of the fine art of persuasive argument -- debate. The matchup was the centerpiece of "Kickoff for Debate," designed by enthusiasts to introduce county students to debating and public speaking.

"The idea is that speech is for everybody," the county's coordinator of high school English, Anelle Tumminello, told the 80 or so students in the school board hearing room yesterday.

"Sometimes it can be very intimidating to turn the microphone over to students, especially when the students are well-prepared," she said to the students.

That was the situation as members of the Arundel and Annapolis debate teams -- who participate in regional tournaments -- squared off over education reform.

The topic was the debate resolution used this year in official competitions: The federal government should establish an educational policy to significantly increase academic achievement in secondary schools in the United States.

Of the county's 12 high schools, only Arundel and Annapolis have extracurricular debate teams -- although students from other high schools compete in individual speaking events. The two schools compete in debates sponsored by the Baltimore Catholic Forensic League.

Interest in debate among county students has "ebbed and flowed through the years," said Arundel High English and speech teacher Carol Myers, who coaches her school's team. Myers has worked with debate students for 26 years.

"I like to see their minds work," said Myers, who noted that debating brings out hidden aspects of a student's personality.

"The girls are pretty quiet in class, but when they get up there, some kind of competition kicks in," she said.

Ron Stafford, the debate coach at Annapolis High, said this year's team of six students is the largest he's had in 15 years of coaching.

"We don't get 50 kids on a debate team," said Stafford, an English and speech teacher.

The "Kickoff for Debate" came about through conversations between Annapolis High senior Andy Smith and school board member Janet Bury, a communications professor at Morgan State University in Baltimore. The idea was to encourage students to become more involved in debating and maybe start clubs at their schools.

"Debate taught me how to speak publicly," said Smith, the student member on the school board. "It helps me take the thoughts in my head and put them into words to get them across to the board and the public."

Caroline Chafin, a member of Arundel High's team, said debating helped her overcome shyness.

"I was petrified to speak in front of people," she said. "And I love the mental excitement that it gives you."

Before yesterday's debate began, Smith gave a quick "Debate 101" course.

He explained that the "affirmative" team must present a plan affirming the resolution, while the "negative" team must refute the plan. Smith introduced basic terms for different points in the debate.

Annapolis High student and affirmative team member Margaret Kinsley started by laying out a response to the resolution.

"The structure of the educational system in this country is in dire need of reform," she said. "Sociologically damaging problems are inherent in the system. "

Taking a deep breath, she spoke of a "hidden curriculum" defined by "oppression," "prejudice," "conformity" and "social programming." She said reform would lead to "full utilization of creativity and individualism and an increase of life skills."

Caroline Chafin, a negative team member from Arundel High, followed with a cross-examination.

"Can you explain to me the hidden curriculum?" she asked. "Exactly what do you mean by de-schooling?"

Though only two high schools have debate as an extracurricular activity, all county high school students are exposed to it in class. It's an eight-week unit in the speech course. Stafford said that Anne Arundel is the only county in Maryland that requires students to take a semester of speech.

Teachers also play a key role in building a team.

"Not to sound self-righteous, but there has to be one of us in a school willing to devote the time," Stafford said.

Yesterday's debate continued as the "negative team" did its best to poke holes in the plan presented by Kinsley and her teammate, Mike Suriano.

The team from Arundel High called it expensive and vague.

"They've showed no causal link between low achievement and the system structure," said Cristina Rebalagia, Chafin's partner.

"They've given us no time limit," for the plan, Chafin said. "It could take 10 years; it could take 20 years."

The debate judges said it was a tough decision but gave the win to the negative team from Arundel High.

After the debate, Diane Sprague, coordinator of gifted and talented programs for county schools, urged students to start debate or speech clubs at their schools.

She also extended an invitation to the county schools' Speech and Debate Tournament on April 29 at Anne Arundel Community College.

Two Severna Park High students said they were inspired to start a debating group at their school.

"It gives students a chance to express their opinions about certain things you don't normally get to talk about," said Stacie Reeder.

Samantha Bran said that debating takes guts.

"These people have courage to stand up and have people directly attack what they're saying," she said.

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