Debate a winner at high schools

Kevin Li was ready for passionate arguments and contentious opponents when he joined Centennial High School's new debate team, but he says he was not really prepared for the filing.

"I thought it was going to be: 'These are my beliefs and I am going to defend them,'" said Li, a sophomore. "It's definitely more analytical. Everything has to be backed up, everything has to be proved and supported."


That means many hours reading and organizing hundreds of pages of support - including academic studies and government reports - so that they can be used at a moment's notice.

That might not seem like exciting stuff, but local educators think that if they can get students comfortable with the format, lingo and organizational basics, they can build competitive debate programs at every Howard County high school in the next five years.


Centennial, Glenelg and Reservoir high schools started extracurricular debate programs this school year with the help of Ronald Bratt, a Columbia resident and founder of the nonprofit Capitol Debate.

Bratt is providing coaching to students and teachers at the three schools for a year. After that, he said, they should be able to carry on while he focuses on more schools.

A parallel program is bringing policy debate to middle schools through the gifted and talented program, either as part of the regular classes or as a separate seminar.

Debbie Blum, a county resource teacher for the gifted and talented program, said teachers are using a simpler format with the younger pupils but that "the skills are still going to correspond very well and lead into the [high school] debate program."

For many years, Wilde Lake had the only debate program in the county. It focused on a different debate format than the one used by the new teams.

The Wilde Lake program grew to include individual speaking events about seven years ago, said coach Kelli Midgley-Biggs, and it has added policy debate over the past couple of years with help from Bratt.

Wilde Lake also invited competitors from other schools, including Atholton and Long Reach, to practices and tournaments in recent years.

The three new high school teams have attended - and received awards at - a couple of interscholastic competitions for novice debaters. They are preparing for another Saturday at Towson University.


This year, policy debate leagues across the country are using a resolution that the U.S. government should substantially increase AmeriCorps, Citizen Corps, Senior Corps, Peace Corps, Learn and Serve America and/or the armed forces.

Depending on the round, the two-person teams have to be prepared to argue an affirmative or negative position, cross-examine their opponents, offer concrete disadvantages to the other team's plan and make rebuttals to their opponents' criticisms.

Students have to be intimately familiar with their prepared arguments and the contents of their piles of evidence, said Christina Lee, president of the Glenelg team. And that means hours of reading, highlighting and labeling.

"When I started doing this, I didn't realize how much work goes into preparing for a tournament," Lee said. "But it really paid off. By the end of the third round, I was really getting into it. ... I like getting my voice heard - and my opinions."

Eric McCullin, a Reservoir High School sophomore, agreed that knowing the ropes is important. But so is thinking on your feet so you can pull out the right arguments and evidence, he said.

"One of the biggest things is to keep open ears and an open mind," he said.


Bratt, who previously coached a debate program at Catholic University and started a high school summer debate institute there, has been working with the county's coordinator of English departments to bring the activity to Howard schools.

The challenge, he said, is building an infrastructure.

Experienced teams have varsity members who can teach and act as role models for the newcomers, he said. "When it's the first year, they are like deer in the headlights," Bratt said.

The key, he said, is to "get students to the first tournament and see who is motivated." After that, they understand how it works and whether or not they like it, he said, so it's easier to teach.

But even getting to the first tournament is difficult without knowledgeable coaches, making Bratt's role a key one.

"This is all new to me," said Lisa Mariner, an English teacher and debate coach at Reservoir High School. "The first time I watched [a debate round] I was really confused."


Now, she said, she is learning the rules and terms along with her students and is excited to see the program gaining momentum.

It is also hard for a team to build its research from scratch. As a coach and through the Capitol Debate Web site, Bratt connects the novice teams with a pool of research largely compiled at debate institutes across the country.

That allows novices to go to a few tournaments and learn the ropes before they start doing their own research, he said.

Centennial English teacher and debate coach Judy Ryan said she has been impressed with students willing to put in the time and mental energy.

Because they have challenging course loads, "you'd think they'd get enough of that," she said.

And, she said, it is a great opportunity for students to have a competitive experience using academic skills, not just athletic ones.