Speech and Debate Club emphasizes value of researching topics, presenting positions

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Speech and debate competitions involve “intellectual combat” and are not just elevated “bluster,” says Rome Free Academy senior Devon Bosco-Johnson, president of RFA’s Speech and Debate Club.

Students in the club, which has resumed competing in interscholastic tournaments for the first time in several years, emphasize the value of researching topics and presenting positions verbally.

Among debate topics have been “Should the U.S. increase its defense spending to better prepare for an international crisis?,” which was for last month’s tournaments, and for this month, “Should the U.S. lift its trade embargo on Cuba?”

The benefits of presenting pro and con viewpoints on such issues can relate to specific career plans as well as speaking skills in general, club members say.

Among some of the club’s six members, junior Derek Swift plans to “go into politics;” sophomore John George wants to work in business or international relations such as diplomacy; and sophomore Imani Turner wants to be a defense lawyer. Junior Madeline Allen wants to work in film, a less direct application of speech and debate concepts, but notes “I do think everyone needs speaking skills.”

Turner agrees that “social skills and people skills in general” are strengthened through the club, while George said it can relate to any career. Allen said that before joining the club, she had difficulty talking about topics; for example, if an order she placed at a restaurant came out with the wrong items, she would just “eat it” rather than say anything. Being in the club has “really helped,” she observed.

The club’s recent accomplishments at the weekend tournaments were praised by school district Superintendent Peter C. Blake at the Board of Education’s Feb. 2 meeting. Observing the club had posted some victories in matches against “very experienced teams,” Blake said the district is “looking for ways to support them going to tournaments.” He added he was “very excited to see something like that take off at the high school.”

Club members Bosco-Johnson, Swift, George, Turner and freshman Katerina Dragojevic are eligible to go to the upcoming state tournament, if they can generate their share of the money needed, said the club’s adviser, RFA history teacher Michael Lacey; the sixth member, Allen, recently stopped competing due to other commitments.

Club members have conducted candy sales and received a church sponsorship to help pay for tournament trips this season. The school district also has provided buses to tournaments, members noted.

Lacey praised the “unyielding enthusiasm” of the club, adding “after the kids got a taste of competition and a sense of pride from their success, that is all they think about.” Whereas the club for many years held only in-house debate events, its recent tournaments have included at the Mount Markham school district, Niskayuna High School, Delaware Academy in Delhi and Shenendehowa.

The club wanted to enter tournaments because it is “more rewarding,” commented George. Previously, the informal in-house debates were simply “more like discussions,” said Swift.

The format for speech and debate club competitions involves topics set monthly by the National Speech and Debate Association, explained Lacey. The RFA club mainly has participated in a public forum debate category involving two-person teams going head-to-head, with a pro or con position on a topic determined by a coin flip; included are presentations, rebuttals and summaries.

Swift has begun competing in an “extemporaneous” category in which topics are not known in advance, and students have 20 minutes to research a topic once known.

Among judges at the competitions are various teachers; Lacey judges debates between teams from other schools and, if possible, teams in divisions where RFA is not competing. Scoring can be based on such factors as the reasoning used, examples and rebuttals offered, and how well points are proven.

If RFA club members present weak arguments, opposing teams will be “schooling” them, said Allen. Students “have to be able to respond to every possible” point, she added.

To prepare for tournaments, club members gather after school during the week, with guidance from Lacey who offers various articles and writings relating to debate topics. Last week, for example, Bosco-Johnson and John George fine-tuned arguments they would present on the Cuba trade embargo topic, and also sought to anticipate possible counter-arguments. Meanwhile, for an “extemporaneous” debate that could involve various topics, Swift said the preparation can involve “just looking at the news a lot” and being “up on current events.”

Among recent results, Swift earned third-place in extemporaneous speaking at the Shenendehowa tournament on Feb. 18, and “did well” in the first time for a club member in that category, said Lacey. In January, Bosco-Johnson and George earned first place in a varsity public forum debate at the Mount Markham tournament, while Turner and Dragojevic earned first place in the novice division at the Delhi tournament.

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