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Lessons Learned from MS UDL Nationals

A number of the urban debate leagues got together to host their middle school national championship tournament.

This tournament is ordinarily hosted live at one of the league sites, but it had to be hosted online this year due to COVID-19. DebateUS! hosted the tournament in its instructional/tournament space in order to save the UDLs the branding fee. The tournament ran on Classrooms.Cloud.

The tournament hand two divisions — Public Forum and Policy.  Across the division, students

*Participated in 130 debates
*Delivered 1,040 speeches
*Spoke for 4,874 minutes
*Participated in 1, 137 minutes of cross-examination/crossfire

Based on discussion with coaches, a number of suggestions for future tournaments were made.

First, a suggestion was made to send a letter to parents that outlined two things. One, the nature of the tournament. In this case, it wasn’t just another day of debate, but students were participating in a national championship.  Coaches generally felt that parents were not sure what their students do in debate and that this would help increase support. One coach noted that she thought that if parents had a greater understanding of what the students were doing that they would be even more supportive. Second, coaches thought parents should be informed of the logistics of the tournament. They thought parents should know ahead of time that students will need as much quiet space as possible, that they could hopefully be seated near the internet router, and that they day could go long and likely go longer than scheduled. It may be desirable to produce these letters in more than one language.  I encourage every tournament to make this type of parent letter available.

Second, all of the coaches noted that debaters had trouble exchanging evidence in both the Policy and PF divisions. I also noticed this problem myself; in two debates I watched each cross-examination took more than 15 minutes. Debaters and judges had trouble creating the email chain, using a chain consistently, sending and receiving emails, and downloading documents. Two related suggestions came from this. One, judges should take responsibility for creating the email chain at the beginning of the debate. Two, two-person teams should create their own team email accounts that both debaters can log into. This means that there are only three emails in play (two debaters, one judge). It also means that debaters do not have to give out their personal email addresses. If students use something simple like a Gmail account they will not have difficulty accessing the account.

Classrooms.Cloud is working on a way to directly share files within the platform, but this will not be ready until fall.

Third, coaches noted that they had many more family members, including grandparents, watching the debates than they otherwise would and that the parent letter described above many even increase participation.

Fourth, coaches noted that administrators, including a principal and operations director, checked in on some of the debates. They thought the online opportunity improved their ability to increase stakeholder involvement.

Fifth, coaches noted that without the travel costs that they had twice as many participants as the previous year. Online debating certainly has the potential to change our craft, but also makes it more financially feasible for many people.

Sixth, the importance of providing some type of ‘pump up’ video was discussed. If a tournament is hosted by a particular school or city, they may want to include some images or brief video clips from school or city. This has the potential to create that “at home” feeling.

Seventh, unlike the TOC, this tournament invited students into awards and had the regular cheering and clapping.  Everyone liked this regular tournament feature.

Eighth, as with regular tournaments, some students had connectivity issues. This is the one problem tournaments can’t solve, but the importance of making phone dial-ins as back-ups was discussed. Everyone agreed that both judges and students were supportive and patient with tech issues had by others. As the significance of being online becomes more of a part of everyone’s life, we can only hope that society as a whole strengthens its internet infrastructure and provides assistance to those who need it most.

Many students did use their own computers, but those who used the platform with school-issued chrome books did not have any issues.

Ninth, as with other tournaments, the importance of keeping cameras on was discussed, but bandwith issues made keeping the cameras on difficult for some.

Tenth, some noted that judges left to take breaks during prep time and didn’t tell the students, leaving them to wonder where the judges went. Judges who are not going to be present for any period of time should let the students know they will return.

Eleventh, one policy coach noted that he was happy the online format seemed to reduce the speed in the debates because many of his UDL students struggle to compete at regular tournaments when the other debaters talk very quickly. This is another way the online format can increase accessibility.