Its time. Time to jump back on the treadmill that is Debate in the Spring semester. ‘Tis the season of pushing hard to finish state qualifications, prepare for NSDA District, compete in region and state meets, continue to prep new topics, prep for the TOC, and the constant search for fresh responses to evolving topics. Every other extracurricular seems to have a season and an off-season. Football in the Fall; Basketball in the Winter; Track in the Spring. But Debate (and yes, I’m going to spell it with a capital D) seems to be truly seasonless. It firmly maintains “Calendar Dominance” or “Year-round Imperialism” or perhaps we should call it “Debate Hegemony.” For those of us not just dabbling in this activity, we have come to learn the Seasons of Debate. Debaters are not governed by those months that other people speak of that originated with the names of various Roman gods and tyrants, or by those days named after some Norse deities. Our calendar is ruled by New Topic Announcements, District, Region, State, Nationals, and that sunny season when school does not interfere with our prep, Debate Camp. Every first of the month is a time for all the PF folks to go briefly nuts, every two months, the LDers have periods of alternating panic and depression and the poor policy kids ride their own crazy rollercoaster of uniqueness through the year. Each debate season or occasion has its charms, but common to them all is a certain unceasing grind of topic reading, anticipating of arguments, case writing, block writing, and card cutting. It really never end and we need to sometimes be proactive in keeping it fresh, keeping it exciting and not allowing the thing we love to do become stale. With that perspective in mind, I’d like to offer some advice for getting through the long, dark nights of winter and not going stir-crazy.
I’ll conclude now, as I huddle for warmth in this very frigid January evening, and wish you the best as we trundle through winter and hope for what e.e.cummings called the “mud-lucious” Spring.
Wishing you a fresh start to your Spring semester,
The Old Coach
One of the issues that plagues my debate classes, especially the beginners, is that phenomenon that I think of as “Squeaky Wheel Syndrome” that happens in our group discussions. It seems that in every class there is a kid (or group of kids) that speak up first, eagerly share the quote from the article they read, or just love to speak first. These kids have arms like vibrating trees - sticking up high and waving for attention. They NEEEEED to be called on. And share the insight. And ask their question. And answer first. And I love them, they are the ones who never leave your questions dangling with an awkward silence, they keep things moving, they give inexhaustible examples of whatever you are trying to discuss. BUT, I also grieve for the silent kid, that seeker of invisibility who has stumbled into that extrovert’s paradise, the debate class. Sure, I can just call on the quiet kid, but I hate that “on-the-spot” kind of cold-call that freaks out some of my favorite introverts, and quite honestly, I really believe the larger life skill is for them to recognize that their contribution is valuable and needed by the group and find opportunities to choose to contribute based upon their own timeframe. I remind myself every day to not just “grease the squeaky wheels” but to pull the quiet ones into the game, to ask their opinions, to not assume that silence is lack of thought. One of the tools that has helped me to do this is The Harkness Method.
A lot of colleagues use Socratic Circles and that’s great too, but I’ve enjoyed the simplicity and total inclusivity of Harkness. A key feature that I enjoy about this method, which, at its heart is simply a formula for a great conversation, is that it places responsibility for including everyone in the conversation on the other participants, not just the teacher. The founder of the method considered it to be "education for the boardroom" and it is fundamentally different from the socratic method. This overview is a great place to start your reading on Harkness. Your class sits in a circle to converse. Every kid keeps a chart that tracks the flow of the discussion. Usually the discussion follows an assigned reading or research topic and the teacher begins the conversation with a guiding question or allows the students to initiate the question, and discussion begins. When students notice that they are dominating the discussion, they should ask a question to draw in a quiet person. If students notice they are quiet then they should look for opportunities to speak up. Something about this method's charting makes the student who seeks to melt into the background instantly visible and more likely to be included, but in an authentic process rather than a “gotcha” moment generated by an authority figure. I’ve found this mindful conversation practice infuses my debate team with kids who look around the periphery of any group and invite the quiet kids on the fringes to share an opinion. After we have several conversations all together with me moderating and nudging things along, I’m able to have groups of 8-10 kids initiate and moderate their own conversations when a new topic is announced or when a strategy discussion needs to happen. The Harkness training that the kids do in Debate 1 grows into more advanced Varsity Debate strategy discussions that are managed by students but still remain civil and balanced (or mostly so.) I find that I can work with another group but see at a glance when I walk by a Harkness table who is contributing to the conversation by checking their diagrams.
This Harkness method is a particularly valuable tool in a debate classroom for discussions of newly announced topics, analysis of "hot topics" in extemp, and Congress docket items. But the biggest payoff is to give our very competitive, eager-to-do-verbal-combat debaters the eyes to see the quiet ones and seek their contribution to a discussion. And, possibly most importantly, to have those introverts' voices added to the conversation at the table.
The Old Coach
Let’s be real. Being the debate coach probably means that you will be absent from your classroom more than any other teacher on campus. Strangely, this doesn’t mean that you are home in bed with a box of tissues or on a beach somewhere with a good novel. We all know what it means. It means you are on a bumpy yellow bus with one half-asleep leg propped on someone’s backpack, riding past a Starbucks as dozens of adolescents in business attire scream to stop for frappuccino, as if caffeine, sugar, and a sloshy, sticky liquid was what’s really needed in this strange transportation equation. This is all done to a frantic, humming soundtrack of a 1AC. SO, the main point here is that while you do usually take your class (or at least part of it) with you, your bag of tricks as a Debate Coach absolutely must include a versatile collection of educational and meaningful work that your students (the ones not actually on the bus with you) can do while you are gone. Sure, sometimes you get lucky and your sub has some debate experience or (Joy of Joys) is an ex-student of yours who can teach just like you would if you were there. However, let’s be honest again, most subs are not that comfortable with the three-ring circus that is the true nature of any highly effective Debate classroom and its difficult to leave something that the debate kiddos feel is actually relevant. So, sometimes you really just need simple lessons to leave behind that can cause some good thinking and are easy to execute. This is material to add to your “The Sub Can Do It” Collection.
Debate Career Moves
Overview: This collection of linkable (for you digital folks) or Printable (for you traditional folks) materials has students explore the careers of Press Secretary and Journalist and discover how the highly portable debate skill of cross-examination relates to those vocations.
May you have many happy road trips with your team this year. If you have a favorite lesson that you use for those days when you have a substitute please comment and share below.
The Old Coach
True Confession Time - There is no way that I can give every kid in my debate classroom the kind of quality feedback that is described in the academic journal, Educational Leadership’s September 2012 issue on pages 10-16. In his article, “Seven Keys to Effective Feedback.”, Wiggins asserts that feedback essentials are: Goal Referenced, Tangible & Transparent, Actionable, User-Friendly, Timely, Ongoing, and Consistent. Wow. I’m pretty sure that a lot of my classroom feedback to my students is just me screaming “Clear!” over and over again. Yes, sometimes I listen to a speech or a rebuttal redo and engage in an erudite and profoundly meaningful critique of nuanced communication, but honestly, there is a lot of speaking and debating going on in a busy classroom and it is challenging to make time to give meaningful, high-level coaching to every student, every day. Usually there are multiple practice rounds happening at the same time, and I end up jumping from group to group monitoring rather than engaging deeply. I peek out in the hall at the LD round happening, jump back in my room to check on the Congress speeches going on with a student judge, then run to the other side of the hall to peek at the PF round in progress just in time to hear the crossfire. It is exciting and important to have kids up and speaking and debating most days, but I am an OLD coach, which also means that I am a TIRED coach, so I’ve worked out systems that save my limited energy for the best stuff (and sometimes paperwork.) I just can't listen to every novice debate or every struggling extemper every day, but I am a nosy old person so I like to keep my hand in every pie and I want my kids who judge each other out in the hall or in a practice room to have some accountability. With the advent of Google Forms and a handy Chrome extension called “Autocrat” I have found a way to give my debaters feedback that meets Wiggin's scholarly criteria for being truly effective feedback and my own criterion of not making me any more tired than I already am from all the midnight bus rides.
Here is how it works: My student, let’s call him Javier ( brand new to Congress) is assigned to give a speech to, let’s call him Sam, (slightly more experienced Sophomore.) They head out to the hall (or practice room) and Javier gives his speech as Sam (the critic) fills out this form:
After the speech and a peer discussion, Javier (the speaker) receives an email that looks like this:
I receive an entry in a spreadsheet of all the speeches that happened that day/week/month/year that looks like this:
This becomes a really beautiful thing when I can send dozens of pairs of students out to give speeches to each other and I can buy myself a few precious minutes to focus on that one kid who needs more very specific coaching from me. It becomes a little bit magic when Javier whispers to me that he savors all the compliments that he gets in these critiques and re-reads them the night before every tournament to give himself the confidence boost he needs. I can also see Team trends, time stamps and notice that no one is making any sense on a particular issue and I need to re-teach. I also find it to be particularly beautiful when I can pull together some daily grades pretty fast the day before grades are due while I’m at a tournament a hundred miles away from my desk just by checking the spreadsheet in Google Drive. Did I mention that there are NO PAPERS to lug around?
Please DO have a mini-lesson with your students about constructive and encouraging language, sensitivity about race or gender bias, being empathetic and encouraging to all. Please DO tell that each critique needs at least one or two compliments. Remind them that this process is transparent and that their coach is an invisible, but digitally present, observer in this process.
In conclusion, may this process bring a little magic to your forensics classroom. Kiddos really grow as humans when they perceive themselves to truly be responsible for the improvement of others on the team. I’ve found that this process helps me achieve that rare thing as a teacher that my favorite unlikely Italian educator, Maria Montessori stated, “The greatest sign of success for a teacher . . . is to be able to say, ‘The children are now working as if I did not exist.’”
Overview: Instruction set for learning how to create a Google Form that uses the Autocrat Add-On to “Mail Merge” a peer-to-peer speech critique via email and create an instructor tracking spreadsheet.
Instructions for Creating a Google Form Speech Critique
Autocrat Video Tutorial
Sample Congressional Debate Critique Google Form
Destination Template for Congressional Debate Critique
*Shout out to Sarah Spring, the awesome Director of Debate at University of Houston, who gave me some tips on Autocrat.
The Old Coach
We’ve all had those lovely, mature classes who sit at their tables for the last 10 minutes of class politely engaged in reflective chats about socially relevant reading material or how they can use their recent learning to help others . . . no? . . . Oh yeah, that was my description of the first few chapters of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women. SO. We are all friends here, and we know that debate classes are different. They are filled with gifted and inquisitive kids who love to push the boundaries and strain against the structures that bind them. We are their coaches, and we (mostly) love it when they challenge the status quo and push the boundaries of traditional thought, but we also know that in order keep these beautiful minds engaged in our classes, we need to inject lots of challenging and competitive activities into our daily/weekly plans to keep them happy and busy so they don’t grab our gavels and use them to tap each other on the head. (Yeah, I said it, you know it’s true.) Having some quick little competitive games in mind (or possibly in that bottom drawer of your desk) can help keep you running “bell to bell” and meet the learning style of those competitive kids that you most want to attract to your debate team. Here are a few items that can prevent that rowdy cluster of backpackers from gathering at your door waiting like hounds to be released by the bell.
Finally, may you have many happy hours playing games with your kiddos. So often, I’ve found that even a few minutes of sitting down among my students engaged with them in constructive play pays many dividends. It helps me remember to see them as human beings in my care, it helps them see me as a gracious winner or loser. I’m reminded of a quote from my favorite sweater-wearing pedagogue, Fred Rogers, who said, “Play is often talked about as if it were a relief from serious learning. But for children, play is serious learning. Play is really the work of childhood.”
Game: Debate Taboo
Game: Debate Would You Rather
Game: Pictionary for 2017-18 Policy Topic
Pro Tip: This is an unsolicited product recommendation for The Metagame. It is good for throwing in your bag and playing at a tournament while you’re waiting for results. History Buffs will enjoy it and it will enhance cultural literacy for your kids who need it (like all of them.)
Greetings! Welcome to the newly launched Veritas Debate Library Blog for Forensics Educators. Now that Nationals is over we can all begin working in earnest on next year’s topic. I have heard some educators refer to some kind of “Summer Break,” but Debate Folks don’t seem to have those endless days of tourist travel, lakeside lounging or lazy days at the pool. Debate Folks are different - some of us pack up and spend weeks at summer camps with the very students everyone else is trying to escape from. Others of us will begin to create from scratch educational materials for this crazy class we teach that has a constant kaleidoscope of changing topics every year, every semester, every two-months, every month. My non-debate-coach colleagues think it is absolutely crazy that the students of the nation will vote on what I will teach next year. But this is also what we love about the craziness that is Debate Pedagogy.
As a means to that end, while also pondering the famous statement that "golf is a good walk spoiled." I’ve created some materials to help the novices that I will soon meet to quickly develop an understanding of some of the seminal legislation and court rulings that govern education policy. Like many of you, I won’t start introducing this material when school starts, I’ll start a few weeks before that, in August, at a summer camp explaining the foundational concepts of education policy. My colleagues also can’t believe that debate students work all summer for the upcoming year. I like to imagine that they are jealous of my students’ enthusiasm. I suspect that they actually think I’m a workaholic.
SO, let me set the scene . . . its summer, kids are wearing flip flops, shorts, neon things. Outside, the sun is bright, inside we are beginning to delve into the fabulous world of education regulations. A lecture from me would be pretty dull compared to all the joy of summer, so I’ve made a US Education Regulation QR Gallery Walk. Just Print and post the Gallery Signs around your room or down a hallway. Give each of your kids 8 sticky notes and have them download a QR Reader to their phone or ipad. They scan the QR Code, watch/read the related link, and write their response to the question on the sticky note and stick it on the wall. That’s it. You can sit at your desk sipping lemonade (yeah, right) while the kids browse and get a quick intro to the topic.
The nice thing about the QR code is that it can link kids to written sources, videos, podcasts, songs or any media that is more interesting than me talking at the front of the room while they take notes.
Best of luck with your summer teaching, prepping, and camping,
The Old Coach
Welcome to the Inaugural Entry of The Old Coach’s Blog! And welcome to the newly launched Veritas Debate Library! It is odd, but somehow appropriate, that we are beginning here in June, where so many of us hope to end our year, at Nationals. It is at this time of year, when so much is at stake for our most dedicated students that our skills as coaches are often tested. Coaching the September debater and coaching the June debater are very different propositions. The September Debater is fresh-faced, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed and the job is to get that kid to as many tournaments as possible while answering their millions of questions as fast as possible. The June debater is a tough, tournament veteran, who has traveled a million bus-miles and needs deep wisdom, not the quick fix. In June, they’ve done the work, they’ve polished, they’ve buckled down and the coaching that’s needed is really something more, something beyond the norm. We really have to back up, avoid the myopia, and see something more.
And so, it is in June, when a kid needs to reach deep down to get that extra inch of quality against the very intimidating opponents at Nationals, that my mind turns to other Old Coaches for some wisdom. One legend that I have drawn some wisdom from is an old football coach who was facing a rival who had never been defeated on their home field. (Yes, I know this is sports, but the longer you coach, the more that you realize that coaching is coaching whether it is debate or curling.) So this coached faced extremely powerful opponents. His young team was intimidated by the undefeated record and couldn’t get past that mental hurdle no matter how hard they prepared, how ready he knew they were. So, he hatched a plan. And let me just say here, that this was long ago, in time beyond time, when coaches were unquestioned, long before the days of permission forms and litigious parents. So, at the last practice before the big game, as darkness fell, he told his team that they should get shovels from behind the fieldhouse shed, and each dig up a big shovel full of dirt and put it all in the back of his truck. His stunned, but still obedient team, followed his strange request and gathered a goodly pile of dirt from their own home endzone in the back of the old coach’s truck. The team then jumped in their cars and drove an hour through the night to the stadium of the undefeated team. They sent their skinniest kid squeezing through the gate to let them all in, and there, under cover of darkness, they sprinkled all the dirt from their own home endzone, invisibly, all over the other team’s home turf. When the game day came, they crushed their opponents, giving them their first loss on what only they secretly knew was now truly their “home turf.”
I tell this story to say that sometimes the coaching that you must do for nationals, for your June Debaters, is very Zen. It is about giving kids the means to access that feeling of confidence to do what they already know how to do while feeling that they are on their own “home turf.” I’m not necessarily advocating that you pack a shovel full of dirt from your hometown into your suitcase for nationals, but I’m not ruling it out either. You will have to find your own “home turf” for each of your June debaters if you want them to imagine that they can do something that’s never been done before.
Best of Luck at Nationals!
The Old Coach