High School Debate & Speech Education
Mar 6, 2013
Most years, the beginning of March brings me to the South Dakota State Debate Tournament. Last weekend, I had the pleasure of judging that august event in Yankton. Short of snuggling with my beloved, I am hard-pressed to think of a better way to spend a winter weekend than listening to some of the sharpest kids in the state debate transportation policy, the goals of the criminal justice system and the dangers of a rising China.
These young debaters conduct themselves with exemplary class and civility. While their schoolmates can barely stand to tuck in their shirts, the debaters argue and hustle and relax between rounds in neckties and dress shoes as comfortably as Mad Men. As they debate, I never hear them resort to the personal or ideological attacks that I see adults lob daily in our blogospheric conversations. Our high school debaters respect their opponents and focus their vigorous arguments on evidence and logic (with, I will grant, the occasional forays into wild suggestions that increased spending on highways will lead to nuclear war).
At State Debate and tournaments throughout the speech season, our kids often do more work than they will do in an entire semester of speech class. When I teach speech, I usually have students do five or six big speeches in a semester. Debaters may make ten or twelve speeches in one tournament. Debaters make these speeches in front of judges from other towns. After the majority of their speeches, debaters take fire from competitors determined to prove them wrong. After every tournament (except State, of course), the debaters read their ballots, review their notes, do more research and load up for another weekend of verbal battle.
South Dakota's high school speechmakers develop a vital academic skill that I hear degraded all too often in school. We teachers often say, "There's no one right way to teach." But we often hear fellow professionals denigrate teaching by lecture as the wrong way to teach. "I don't want to just stand here and lecture," say too many educators. I get the impression lecture gets a bad rap from bad lecturers who never took debate and learned to give a good speech.
One of the best teachers I ever had was Dr. Rodney Bell, history professor at SDSU. I don't know if he did high school debate, but he could give a heck of a speech. He came to class armed with a briefcase full of well-worn notes. He held forth all class period on the ancient Greeks, the stirrup, or the Roaring Twenties. He spoke as if history mattered. If he had ever stopped after ten minutes and said, "But enough from me; how about you students pair and share your feelings about Sparta?" I'd have said, "No, sir! Please keep talking!"
More teachers should teach like Dr. Bell did. More students should take debate to learn how to give good speeches. Every student should learn the vital skills you can see on display each year at the State Debate Tournament.
Editor's Note: Cory Heidelberger is our political columnist from the left. For a right-wing perspective on politics, please look for columns by Dr. Ken Blanchard every other Monday on this site.
Cory Allen Heidelberger writes the Madville Times political blog. He grew up on the shores of Lake Herman. He studied math and history at SDSU and information systems at DSU, and is currently teaching French at Spearfish High School. A longtime country dweller, Cory is enjoying "urban" living with his family in Spearfish.