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Start a Debate Club
Debate clubs work best when there is a strong sense of group identity, when members feel that they are part of something. The individual debater should not feel that he or she is a soloist, meeting casually with other soloists for the sake of a competition, only to go off independently afterward. Rather, the debater should feel that the debate club is like a symphony orchestra, which exists as an on-going corporate entity. When this feeling exists, the reward is a broad sense of well-being. Everyone in the group shares the joys of victory; the disappointment of loss, when shared, is assuaged. A sense of group identity is not a mystical goal that can be achieved only through a lucky combination of people. Rather, it is something that can be created by concrete steps. These steps involve the management of space, the management of time, and the organization of the club structure.
It is important for a debate club to have a home: a room that is largely devoted to the club and its activities. The club room should be a place where serious work can be done; where issues can be discussed and speeches written. It should provide resources for debaters: dictionaries, reference books, periodicals - whatever the club's funds allow. It should also function as the repository of the club's history. It is a place to keep tournament records, both formal and anecdotal; it is a place to store copies of cases and notes; it is a place to display trophies and pictures. Ideally, the resources should be directly available to the debaters, without the intercession of a coach or teacher.
The club room should also be a place that permits the casual interaction of students on the team. A sense of camaraderie can be built on the experience of collaborative work, but it also needs an infusion of fun. Friendships cannot be manufactured by decree. They can, however, be encouraged; providing students with a friendly place to meet is one simple step. When they go to the debate room, debaters should feel that they are entering a space that belongs to them, where they will find friends who share their enthusiasm for debating.
Club Meetings and Working Sessions
Needless to say, the club space is of little value if there are no activities to fill it. Debate clubs should meet regularly. One model is to have a mandatory weekly meeting for all club members. Even if members are not involved in an upcoming competition (or even if there is no competition in the immediate future), they join together with their partners on the team to find out what issues or events are affecting the team as a whole. But it should also go without saying that a significant amount of time must be devoted to regular working sessions. In the sporting world, there are varying practice-to-performance ratios. In some sports, teams practice very little but play constantly; in others, a week of practice will precede a single game. The routine of a good debate team is more like the latter model. Good cases cannot be thrown together at the last minute; they require thinking and discussion. Ideas must be mulled over and distilled; speeches must be drafted and revised. Of course, every school must operate within the constraints of its own schedule, but in some successful programs, debate clubs have daily working sessions involving at least some of the team members. Working sessions are devoted, in part, to preparation: that is, to constructing arguments and strategies for a particular competition. But they are also given, in part, to practice. Members of the team spend time debating each other, either with a pending resolution or with resolutions composed or selected for the occasion. We must emphasize that practice and preparation time are where most of the education involved in the activity of debate takes place. There is much to be learned in competition as well, but it is in the day-in and day-out business of practice and preparation that critical thinking and public speaking skills are developed and honed.
Club Leadership and Organization
In its infancy, a new debate club will depend heavily on the leadership and expertise of adults acting as teachers and coaches. But after programs become established and grow, a fair amount of leadership can devolve upon the students themselves. Some successful teams seem to be self-perpetuating, although this is only truly possible when they are multi-generational. That is, such teams include younger as well as older students. In well-established programs, the older students joined when they, too, were young. In the last year of their careers as debaters, these students have had three or four years of experience and have developed some wisdom and expertise with that experience. As 17- or 18-year-olds, they meet 14-year-old neophytes who are starting where they started and must learn what they learned. They are positioned to be effective and sympathetic teachers. In practical terms, this means they can act as judges when younger debaters are practicing; they can watch them compete in actual competitions and share notes with them afterward. During preparation sessions, they can work with younger debaters as they craft their cases. What is more, the reverse is also profitable: as they start their careers as debaters, novices can benefit from listening to more seasoned debaters argue. With this kind of organization, team members naturally feel more involved with the organization as a whole. Specifically, older members come to take pride in the accomplishments of their younger peers and feel a sense of responsibility for them, and younger members follow the careers of their mentors with enhanced interest.
The team broadly shares the leadership roles described above. In addition, many teams have more carefully defined roles for individuals. In other words, they have students who are elected president, secretary, treasurer, director of recruitment and orientation, and so forth. The students who fill these roles are not necessarily the most successful debaters in competition. They are students who have shown significant commitment to the well-being of the team. In their various roles, they can be responsible for many of the administrative duties involved in running a team. For example, by preparing tournament registrations, keeping club records, collecting dues or travel payments, etc.
Recruitment and Retention
The first task demanded in the recruitment of members for a debate club is education. Many students (and teachers) simply do not know what debate is. It is essential to inform them. Many people who don't really know about debate think that it is for students who are aggressive or naturally argumentative. They may associate it with slickness of style, rather than solidity of substance. They need to see that debate offers benefits to a broad range of personalities and draws its inspiration from political philosophers, not from smooth-talking politicians. One way to educate the public is to stage a debate demonstration. Students also need to know how the team operates and what opportunities are available for neophytes. Many students will be attracted by the thrill of competition and they must be assured that competition is not limited to seasoned veterans. But students should also be educated about the broad intellectual benefits gained from involvement. At its best, a debate program provides an intellectual experience comparable to that offered by the finest academic courses. In keeping with the principle of inclusion, team leaders must work at retaining debaters rather than cutting the team roster. This means providing club members with meaningful activities. If teams rarely compete or rarely practice, students will quickly lose interest. Teams that rarely practice will rarely win. Students will be quick to desert a losing enterprise. It also means, in some cases, designing special leadership roles for some students. The student who is a perennial loser may become disheartened and think of quitting the club, but will be more likely to stay if given special responsibility for training a cadre of new debaters. Sponsoring non-debate events for club members will also help keep students committed to the team. Ping-Pong matches, basketball games and entertainment outings can help to build the ties of a permanent community. Above all, students must understand that the only requirements for club membership are commitment and a willingness to work. Success in competition cannot, and will not, come to every member of the team. Debaters need to know that even if they fail, their places on the team are secure and their participation is valued.
The Role of Coaches and Teachers
Any adult who has an abiding concern for the creative education of young people can serve as a debate coach. Coaches do not need to be specialists with extensive training in oratory or logic (although training is certainly a plus). A debate coach is not expected to pass along a body of knowledge to his or her students the way that a chemistry teacher might. The rules and procedures of debate that must be taught are comparatively few. The coach's job, actually, is to foster the development of thinking skills. The coach is there to draw things out of the students rather than to pour things in. The coach must listen, question and react. The coach may guide discussions and give them direction; she may help students focus on the appropriate issues, but she should not be regarded as the repository of ultimate truth. Indeed, students need to feel free to disagree with the coach and to engage with the coach in the same way they would with anyone else involved in the discussion. The coach must also provide moral leadership for the team. Team members must understand that debaters will behave honestly and ethically in competition. Moreover, the coach must set the moral tone for the regular activity of the team. Students will disagree in discussions. If they didn't, the discussions would not be terribly productive. But the coach must ensure that disagreements do not become personal and that comments do not become insulting or demeaning. Students need to be able to take risks and test ideas in discussions; they must feel that they can do so without being mocked or disregarded. The coach must create a climate of respect, not simply by offering a model in his or her personal behavior, but by articulating and enforcing standards. In the classroom, the relationship between students and teachers is sometimes formal and impersonal. Coaching, however, requires a degree of personal involvement. Coaches must encourage and monitor the development of each debater individually. In effect, this means that coaches must act as judges for intramural debates and comment on the performance of participants. They must review and criticize written work. And inevitably, coaches become involved with students on a casual basis not only on the home turf of the debate room but also during debate tournaments. Many coaches have come to know their students well as they wait in hallways for a round to begin or for results to be posted. Coaches have more mundane responsibilities as well. The coach has the ultimate responsibility for managing the internal affairs of the team: its schedule, its membership roster and its finances. Finances may involve raising money as well as managing a budget. The coach also must handle its operations on the road: the coach decides who will participate in a given tournament, makes travel arrangements and handles all the administrative paperwork. Coaches must also recruit and provide the requisite number of judges when the tournament arrives. The coach also serves as a judge. It is standard practice that coaches never judge their own debaters, however.
The Role of Parents
Debate offers parents a unique opportunity for involvement in a school activity. Usually, parents are asked to perform the role of spectators at athletic events and artistic performances. In debate, they have the chance to become active participants by serving as judges. Judges do not need to have special expertise: they are meant to be the reasonable people of the political paradigm; they need simply to be good listeners and to say who offered them the best argument. Coaches inevitably recruit judges from a wide pool: family members, friends, former debaters, teachers, administrators, etc. It is, by the way, a good idea to involve teachers and administrators as a way to educate the school community. But in many programs, parents form the backbone of the judging pool. Parents who don't wish to serve as judges can be involved in other ways. They can provide transportation, meals and even housing to team members when tournaments are underway. They can also serve as spectators and sources of moral support for their children and their friends. Often, parents value debate not simply because of the benefits it provides their children, but because of the opportunity it offers them to become personally involved, in a supportive way, with their children's education. And, sometimes too, parents form their own communities around debate that parallel the communities formed by debaters. They, too, form lasting friendships as a result of the activity.
The Debate Club in the Community of the School and Beyond
Obviously, the benefits of debate are enjoyed most by the people who actually do it. And yet, there is much to be said for listening to debates as well: spectators often learn a new way of thinking about a problem or an issue. It makes sense, then, to fashion a strong public profile for the debate team. Spectators can be invited both from within the school community and from outside of it. (For the uninitiated, the team can provide materials that outline the rules and procedures of debate.) As a matter of habit, the debate club should publicize its competitions. It should announce debate resolutions to the community in advance of the debate. And certainly, the debate club should publicize its results. A team that does well deserves the recognition of the school community. Sometimes this means making use of the school newspaper or announcement system. Some clubs also publish their own newsletters.
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