The power of middle school debate

Published in the Examiner

Middle school is a challenging time. It is a time of intense, yet often confusing feelings. Children are eager to grow up, but no one is letting them. They yearn to be cared for, yet scream that they can do it by themselves. Parents are often at a loss, not knowing how to let go and still protect. Every day is a challenge!

There are daily decisions to be made about clothes, academics, food, homework, clubs, sports and friends. Making the right choice can seem impossible. The wrong decision can make for unpleasant days. Educators and parents spend much time trying to teach students the difference between right and wrong, to stand up for what is right, and to make the right choices. How can this get accomplished?

Debate empowers children and gives them a safe place to practice and extend that power. Students of debate learn many skills before and during the debates.

Debate requires students to research both sides of an argument and speak out for one side. It allows students to ponder current events and age-old moral dilemmas. It encourages civil discourse and requires listening to peers. It gives them a voice. In this day of constant information and so-called news shows, these skills are needed more than ever to foster understanding, dialogue and informed decision making.

Debate students tackle each topic and own it. They find facts to defend and knock down both sides of an argument. They look for evidence to support their points. They read articles and keep looking to find just one more fact to support their point. They work with their team to organize their plan of attack and how to defend their side. Debate students are diligent.

Getting up to speak in front of others is terrifying for many people. Debate students not only get up in front of others, they passionately argue for or against a point. They allow their opponents to question a statement, answer it and continue on with their thoughts. In a formal debate, they do not know what side they are arguing for until 20 minutes before they actually debate. Debate students are brave.

NATO should withdraw from Afghanistan. The United States should not send humans into space. The European Union should drop the Euro. The United States should establish a living wage for all. The Electoral College should not be abolished. Many adults know little about these topics. The Internet is filled with misinformation and opinions. The information presented on television is sometimes biased. Debate students read and read and read to understand each topic. They talk and talk and talk to understand each topic. Debate students are smart.

Every argument has two sides and creates clash. People often feel strongly for one side and have a difficult time seeing the other side. To win an argument, one has to understand it, analyze it and evaluate it. None of this can be done without listening to the other side. Often in a debate something is said that can be turned around and used against the person. Debate students are good listeners.

Extracurricular activities are an integral part of the middle school. Sports, band and theater draw hundreds of students each year. Those students who like to question, discuss and discover the world will find a home in debate.

Researching topics for each tournament requires a large commitment of time. Preparing for each debate is equivalent to writing a full-fledged research paper. Competitive debate students prepare for 25 topics each school year. Debate students are highly motivated.

In kindergarten, everyone is encouraged to share and get along. As students get older, individual achievement is respected. Debate students work to improve on both individual and team performance skills.

Teammates lead, support and depend on each other. Congratulating the winners or consoling the losers is expected at every debate. Debate students are team players.

The world is connected with the touch of a button or screen. People are friends with citizens of many countries and cultures.

Debate students learn to look at problems from a global perspective. They search for information across borders to define their points. They use the experiences of people and nations to support their assertions. They understand the impact events have on the world. Debate students are globally connected.

People have been debating since the start of time. Without discussions that challenge the status quo, change does not happen. Without the facts to support the ideas of change, ideas are not taken seriously. Without the skills to listen, compromise cannot be met. Without debate, ideas are not shared and nothing changes. Debate students are important.

Debate is important in middle school because it gives students the tools to argue effectively. Debate creates students who are diligent, brave, smart and good listeners. They are highly motivated team players, who are globally connected, and on a course to change the world. I have watched these simple skills change lives. I am lucky to teach and coach middle school debate. I am proud to be part of debate at Stone Bridge Middle School.

Dee Burek is a teacher at Stone Bridge Middle School in Allentown and coaches the school’s debate team with Judi Hoffman.