Speech and Debate at AIS: Fulfilling a Dream

On the first day of school, an eager 12-year-old student came to my room and asked, “Will you be leading the debate club this year?” I had been assigned to the classroom that the departing debate club coach had taught in, so she had perhaps expected to find him instead. She explained that as an 11 year-old-student, she looked forward to joining the debate club, which accepted students in the 12-year-old class and up. Her teacher had a daughter involved in the program, and no doubt heard about those experiences. As a teacher returning to AIS after a four-year absence, and not knowing anything about debate, I could only answer, “I’ll find out who is leading debate, and let you know!”

    I soon learned that my predecessor had begun the AIS Speech and Debate club several years prior, and several returning debate students also began asking the same question. One of my recently-graduated former students had gone on to be a standout at debate, and a few other students I recalled from my past tenure were looking forward to continuing.  Intrigued, I investigated further, and discovered that the former coach was returning to Almaty to take a new role teaching at a local university, and also to pursue his goal of creating a Kazakhstan-wide debate association modeled after the American National Speech and Debate Association (NSDA, formerly known as the National Forensic League). This new organization, the Qazaqstan Speech and Debate Association (QSDA), organized several events during the school year, and Mr. Saligman agreed to work with me as a mentor. Needless to say, when it came time for teachers to decide which activities to coach, I decided that I would step in, and Mr. Saligman agreed to be a co-coach. Over 30 students signed up for the club, and many stayed committed throughout the school year. 

    Debate is an academically rigorous event; which students embrace with great enthusiasm. As I’ve coached this club, I’ve examined ways to bring this level of engagement to the classroom. Working as a team to answer questions from multiple perspectives, prepare an oral presentation, and track opposing arguments and logical fallacies involves higher-level thinking. Debate reinforces writing classes especially well- as it encourages the development of a claim, finding evidence, and anticipating counterarguments. Debate requires thinking on one’s feet: debaters have access to potential topics for tournaments, but do not know which one will actually be used. Further, they do not know which side of the issue they will argue, which is determined by a coin flip at the beginning of the debate. This means that teams must prepare 8 “cases”- the pro and con side for each of 4 potential topics. It is common to argue both sides of one topic during the same competition! In addition to academic rigor, this encourages the Success Orientation of “Concern for Others”, as it involves developing empathy for a position or belief that you may not necessarily hold yourself. Debates are physically demanding as well, as they involve up to five or six 45-minute debates or 10-minute speeches in the course of a weekend tournament

    The first debate competition of the year was held at a local university, and 18 AIS debaters participated in one (or more!) of three styles of debate: World Schools (teams of three), Lincoln-Douglas (solo debaters using a “value” such as ‘justice’ or ‘freedom’  to guide their arguments), and Original Oratory (a Ted Talk style speech about an issue of social significance). Many AIS students placed as semi-finalist or higher in these events. The club attended a few more debate tournaments and “friendlies” with local schools throughout the year. Confident that I had a dedicated crew of students and knowing that AIS had hosted successful debate events in the past, I approached the AIS admin team about allowing the QSDA use of our facilities for its debate series held in various local schools. We held an event on March 30 and 31 with 90 debaters and 20 judges, with our food services and cleaning staff working extra hours to accommodate us. Our school was busy that weekend: in addition to our debate, which took place in 14 classrooms, we had an under-12 basketball tournament, two separate mock AP exams, and a college admission test going on. We couldn’t have managed without the support of all school staff! At this event, we asked our experienced debaters to tabulate results in lieu of debating in World School style debate. Six students stepped up to this intense task, which involved multitasking to an extreme, as they tallied results, determined debate matchups for subsequent rounds, and scheduled judges to avoid conflicts – since judges could not judge any students from their own school. Four AIS teachers and staff volunteered to judge at the tournament, which involved two full 9-5 days over the weekend.

    Remember the 12-year-old? She went on to impress the judges for a first-place trophy for her speech, “Herd Mentality”. Currently, the Debate club is preparing for the final event of the year, a World Scholar’s Cup, part of an international debate organization, to be held at another local school. We’re all looking forward to continuing next year and meeting the new crop of eager 12-year olds!

Philip Johnson

Secondary Writing/Literature II

Almaty International School