ASAP's 3rd Annual Summer Debate Academy

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8 of the 43 Summer Debate Academy Students.  Starting from top-left: Anthony, Jahmeer, Maliek, Sydney, Tatyana, Ciani, Yari, and Baahij

Every kid is unique, but most have at least one thing in common: they like to argue!  For kids in Philadelphia that really love to argue, ASAP Debate offers a unique opportunity to practice speaking in public and defending their opinions.

The 3rd annual ASAP Summer Debate Academy took place from Monday, July 25th to Friday August 5th at George Washington Carver High School of Engineering and Science. Over the course of 10 five-hour days, the Academy engaged 43 students (grades 7-12) from all around the city.  They represented twenty-nine different traditional public, public charter and independent schools.  Four coaches from the city’s top middle and high school debate clubs in the city served as the camp’s lead instructors, and they were supported by four teaching assistants – all recent alumni of ASAP’s Philadelphia Scholastic Debate League (PSDL).  Together, our tremendous instructors and teaching assistants taught the students the necessary skills and structure of Public Forum Debate. 

By the end of the two weeks, I was able to meet all of the students and had the opportunity to interview eight of them individually.  Many, I found, were drawn to debate by their love of argument.

Eighth grader Maliek commented, “I always have loose debates, but never, like, constructed.”  The “constructed” form of debate was exactly what Maliek intended to learn at the Academy.  Outside of instruction, he had a space to exhibit his knack for argument; during instruction, he was developing his debate techniques and etiquette: “It’s formal, so I can’t jump in and butt anybody out, so I learned to just wait my turn.” 

The other students could certainly relate to Maliek’s affinity for argument.  Seventh grader Jahmeer recalled that “at my school, they have clubs, and there was a debate club that everyone said I would be good for, because I like to argue.  So I tried out, and I liked it.”  Eighth grader Tatyana also said, “I like to argue,” and added that, “debate helps me professionally argue.”

Eighth grader Sydney was pleased with the structure of Public Forum Debate.  She said, “I like it.  It’s a new experience.  I didn’t think that debate would be this way.  I thought, you know, somebody would give you an issue, and y’all argue about it.  I didn’t know there was a pro and a con side and that there were speeches involved.  I didn’t know you had to have actual facts.  It was nice to learn something new… it’s more active.  It requires more work.”

One of the main ways that students learn to formally argue is by developing their notetaking skills – what debaters call “flowing.”  Our teachers led instruction through the basics of flowing, and then the teaching assistants performed a demonstration debate.  The students practiced their flowing during the demo and discussed what the exercise had taught them.  Many students, like 8th grader Ciani, saw the benefits of learning better notetaking skills: “Now I know how to organize.  If I’m writing an essay, I can organize it a certain way – like how a debate speech would go.”  The students were well aware that these skills would benefit them beyond debate competitions.

After covering flowing technique, the students were introduced to the Summer Debate Academy’s main topic: whether or not the system of presidential primary elections is contrary to American democratic values. Students began preparing both pro and con responses.  At the end of the two weeks, the camp would host a tournament on the topic.

ASAP organized three informative field trips to help the students learn more about the primary electoral process and the various definitions of American democratic values.  The camp ran concurrent to the 2016 Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia, so ASAP arranged to bring the students to the DNC Women’s Caucus and Hillary Clinton’s rally at Temple University.  Campers had exposure to not only supporters of the DNC but also protestors of the American primary system, many of whom were expressing opinions campers would later feature in their pro-side contentions.  For historical background on American elections, the students also visited the National Constitution Center.  The visit included tours of the main and special exhibits, as well as a viewing of Freedom Rising, the multi-media performance exploring the definition of freedom throughout American history.

For many campers, the field trips added another exciting dimension to the Academy and provided real world context to their study of the primary process.  Ninth grader Yari commented: “The field trips I thought were amazing.  To start off with going to the DNC – just being there was an amazing experience.  It helps us students who don’t have the chance to do that on our own or with our families.  It’s given us the chance to see the outside world and how the election really is.  It was amazing.”  She also noted how fun and educational the exhibits at the Constitution Center were: “We played trivia games, we participated in many cool activities, we watched Freedom Rising, which opened up my mind a bit more about our history and how it has progressed over the years.  I think the field trips have been really helpful.”

Throughout the second week, instructors helped the students prepare for the camp’s tournament on the primary election topic.  This began with pairing the students based on complementary debating styles, personalities, and skill levels.  Each pair researched independently – with occasional guidance from instructors – to collect evidence and develop pro and con arguments.  On the final two days of camp, the pairs competed in a tournament.

The Academy’s culminating tournament helped the students see the progress they had made over the previous eight days.  Even those who were confident debaters prior to the camp, like seventh grader Baahij Arthur, recognized their own improvement: “I’m good at communicating, but I’m learning more communicating skills, social skills – learning how to project my voice and to have good posture when I’m standing or sitting, how to speak correctly, and to just be yourself when you’re doing debate.”

Sydney commented that “[debate] definitely develops public speaking skills, because you have to present to the judges your speeches, and it also teaches you how to compromise with people.”  Competing in pairs allowed the students to develop their teamwork skills.

By the end of the tournament, students were feeling confident and ready to compete again.  Many were eager to begin debating in the next season of the Philadelphia Scholastic Debate League, including Yari: “Debate helps in a lot of ways: raising self-confidence; learning how to think critically; thinking faster on your feet…With this Debate Academy, I’ve learned to not stutter as much, I’ve felt better, I’ve felt more prepared for the upcoming debate year.”  For those just starting debate, like eighth grader Anthony, the new season meant a chance to try out debate at their school’s club.  More experienced debaters, like Yari and several others, established themselves at the Academy as emerging leaders of their debate teams.  A few, like Maliek, were even inspired to start brand new ASAP Debate clubs at their schools!

To kick off this season of the Philadelphia Scholastic Debate League, ASAP will be hosting a Demonstration Debate on October 26th, from 3:30-4:45pm, at Central High School.  The city’s top high school debaters will put their skills on display and examine the topic of standardized testing.  We hope to see you there!


This article was written by ASAP/ After school Activities Partnerships' Strategic Impact Coordinator, RJ Tischler


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