It's a lot of talk -- and learning

A forensics club helps students sharpen their minds and their debating skills

October 08, 2006|By Cassandra A. Fortin | Cassandra A. Fortin,special to the sun

Danielle Polston stood and read a story about a 9-year-old who watches too much TV.

Across the hall, Katarina King and four other students performed an act from Shakespeare's Taming of the Shrew.

And upstairs at Joppatowne High School, Tyrell Gibson debated whether a just government should provide health care to its citizens.

The students are members of the Harford County Forensics Club, started in 1984 to give high school students a forum in which to take part in debate, interpretation and public speaking.

Last week, students from across the county converged on Joppatowne High to participate in the second of the eight tournaments scheduled for this year that culminate in a final tournament in March.

"Forensics gives students the chance to learn to speak well in public and network with other students," said Melissa Hammond, an English and speech teacher at Harford Technical High School who heads the program. "The program itself is good for shy kids who want to perform but not in front of an audience of 1,000 people."

Participants in the 100-member club compete in nine categories, including dramatic interpretation, original oratory, extemporaneous speaking and team debate. The club is open to all academically eligible students at the nine public high schools and John Carroll School.

Students must take part in four of the eight competitions to qualify for the final tournament in the spring.

The students are divided by category and make six- to 10-minute presentations twice before two judges.

For some students, it isn't the presentation that is most difficult, but rather finding a niche.

"Some of the categories are more difficult than other ones," said Danielle, a junior at Joppatowne High who competed in the children's literature category. "But you don't know how hard until you try them. I'm majoring in drama in college, so I want to try a lot of different things."

That's where coaches come in, said Larry Couchman, a world history and law teacher at John Carroll who writes the topics for the extemporaneous speaking category.

"We try to help students choose areas that highlight their strengths," Couchman said. "I think the kind of person that does well in this area is someone who is up on current events, that can quickly organize their thoughts."

The premise for that category involves giving the student a randomly selected topic and then providing 20 minutes to study news magazines and newspapers to compile notes. Sample topics are the pope's planned trip to Turkey and whether cheating is widespread in high schools and what can be done about it.

Using no more than 50 words written on a note card, the participants give five- to seven-minute speeches. They are judged on adherence to the subject, use of information, organization, thinking and effectiveness.

Ten students, including Edgewood High sophomore Lauren Skinner, gave it a try last week.

"I learned how to keep my composure while giving a public speech," she said.

Maggie Fulkrod, a math teacher at Havre de Grace High, said she encourages students to try the extemporaneous category.

"I always try to convince my students that this is the best category, but they shy away from it because it's the most difficult," she said.

The benefits of forensics are many, said Kelly Blackburn, an English and drama teacher at C. Milton Wright who coaches the school's 24-member team.

"This program is such a boost to a student's self-esteem," she said. "And it is a perfect place for students to express themselves creatively without having 5,000 people watching them."

Other benefits include getting experience working on deadline, learning responsibility and being involved in a school activity, she said.

"It's great to see a student start in 10th grade and grow and flourish by the 12th grade," she said.

The students say they have noticed a difference.

"Debating gave me a chance to feel comfortable when I was presenting my stance and opinions," said Dominique Nguyen, a Bel Air High freshman. "Usually when I get in front of a group, I babble on and get really nervous."

Tyrell, a junior at Harford Tech, said preparing to take part in the Lincoln-Douglas debate category was enlightening.

"I found out while I was preparing for this event that I have more prior knowledge than I thought," he said. "I think it gives us a great chance to meet new people and get a better grasp of concepts."

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