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Power of debate not up for dispute

The Baltimore Sun

Emily Fenichel, 12, flinched a little when she heard the assignment. She would have to argue in favor of dissecting animals in science classes, even though she personally hates the practice.

"It's so nasty," she later said.

"Remember, for good debaters, it doesn't matter what side you're on," said Nan Dove, the Gifted and Talented Program resource teacher at Oakland Mills Middle School. So Emily gathered her thoughts and made her arguments.

"It helps you learn about whatever animal you're dissecting," she said.

Emily is one of about 25 students at the Columbia school taking part in a debate program run by Dove. Since August 2006, the county has required all middle schools to have such programs, and has started a twice-yearly competition between schools.

The next competition, scheduled for 9 a.m. to 11 a.m. March 13 at Oakland Mills Middle School, will have students debate whether school uniforms should be mandatory. Fourteen middle schools have signed on to participate, double the number that participated in a similar competition in November.

Debbie Blum, the resource teacher for the gifted and talented education program countywide, helped write the curriculum for the middle school debate program and is organizing the competition. She noted that interest is growing each year. "It's very exciting," she said.

She said the middle school program gives students a foundation in debate before they go to high school, where they can take part in established debate programs that compete throughout the region. Blum said middle schools might eventually sign up to participate in regional leagues.

Middle school debate is slightly different from the high school format. In high school, two students go head to head, with one arguing in favor of a proposition and one arguing against it. In middle school, the students compete in teams of six to eight students. During the debates, two or more students make the opening argument, several deliver the rebuttal and a few are assigned closing arguments.

Before the debate program was required, some middle schools, including Oakland Mills, had informal programs in place. Dove said she started teaching her students the finer points of debate about four years ago, spurred by several students in the Gifted and Talented Program who had asked to learn about debate as an independent project.

The more formal program is offered at all middle schools as an instructional seminar, meaning any interested student can sign up for the class. At Oakland Mills, it is taught once a week for about 40 minutes. Dove said about one-quarter to one-third of the students in the program do not take Gifted and Talented classes.

Dove noted that the rigors of formal debate can motivate students who might not excel at "paper and pencil" schoolwork. "It's so powerful," she said.

She noted that debate teaches research and critical-thinking skills and is useful in all walks of life. "I just see it as a really powerful teaching tool," she said. "It makes them better students and better citizens."

Each year, more students sign on, Dove said. "I see that interest is growing," she said.

During a recent class of seventh- graders, Dove began by asking two students at a time to come to the front of the room to take sides on issues ranging from the driving age to whether zoos should be banned. Students were told which side they were to take.

Jenna Pekofsky, 12, argued that zoos should be banned because animals are better off in the wild. Aileen Amador, 12, said zoos are beneficial because they protect endangered animals.

Alicia Wooten, 12, was asked to give reasons why fast-food restaurants should be prohibited from selling food with high levels of fat and sugar. "The reason would be that obesity is such a large problem in the U.S.," she said after only a few seconds of thought.

Coming up with those top-of-the-head arguments was just the first part of the debate process. Finding facts to support both sides of the issue is key, Dove said. After about 20 minutes, she divided the students into two groups, asking one to research the pros of school uniforms and one to research reasons to oppose uniforms.

Students used laptop computers to look up newspaper articles and go to Web sites on the topic, taking notes as they scanned the information. They wouldn't find out until later in the month which side they would take in the March debate, but Dove said it was important for students to be able to argue either side with ease.

Kaitlyn Bejarano, 12, said she signed up for the class because "I've always wanted to debate about stuff," she said.

"You learn how to look up good research, how to find both sides of the story," she said.

She took part in the November competition, which pitted teams from seven schools against one another and had students arguing the pros and cons of social networking sites like Facebook.

Danielle Amos-Lawrence, 12, said the program has been fun. "I like finding facts to back up what I say," she said.

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