The school day has ended at Edward M Kennedy Academy for Health Careers, but a group of about ten high schoolers remain gathered in Ms. Litten’s classroom. These Boston students are sticking around for their after-school debate practice.
One of the students is Bryce Griffin. She’s a senior, and has debated since ninth grade, when she stumbled upon the debate team.
“So at my Middle School we had like a Mock Trial thing and I kinda was interested in that, but never really joined, but then I came to EMK and I saw this debate team, so I thought it was Mock Trial and not like Policy Debate, so I go into practice and they basically sat there and it was like really interesting and they had one of the two most skilled level debaters at that time both debate against each other and that was like really interesting and really intrigued me. So then I came back and got to know what policy debate was all about and I did well at my tournaments, so then I just continued and that’s kind of how I got from there.” said Bryce.
The debate program Bryce is a part of is run in partnership with the Boston Debate League (BDL). Last month marked the tenth anniversary of the BDL, a non-profit created to support debate in Public Schools.
“It was part of a movement around the country to bring the activity of debate into cities and urban areas, bring it to students of color, to families that have less financial resources, because for a long time it was an activity that was seen as something that you would do at elite schools or private schools,” said Mike Wasserman, the Executive Director of the Boston Debate League.
If it were not for public debate leagues like the BDL, students like Bryce, who attend metropolitan public schools, would likely not have opportunities to debate. So, ten years ago a few volunteers helped set up some debate teams at Public Schools around Boston and organized small, informal tournaments. Wasserman said that the league took off: “Basically as students said yes this is something I want to do and as teachers, and educators and district leaders saw what an impact debate could have, it just grew to more and more schools.”
There are now non-profit debate leagues in twenty two cities across the country, united under the National Association for Urban Debate Leagues. The BDL has teams at over 35 Middle and High Schools schools throughout the Boston area. The BDL identifies teachers at Boston schools and gives them stipends to coach debate. The league then trains and supports the coaches and helps them recruit students, making a concerted effort to reach as many students as possible. Part of these efforts include a Spanish Language Division for students who don’t speak English well enough to debate in English.
Leagues such as the BDL have been successful in reaching a wide range of students. That’s according to Briana Mezuk. She’s a former debater, former coach in the Baltimore Urban Debate League, and now a professor at Virginia Commonwealth University. Mezuk studies the effects of non-profit debate leagues on academic achievement. She said her research shows that debate has a broad appeal.
“This is an activity that attracts both males and females. It attracts students of every racial background, it attracts high performing students, so students who were doing well in 8th grade, and it attracts lower performing students, so students who weren’t doing well in 8th grade,” said Mezuk.
In the BDL, students practice one or two times a week and participate in monthly tournaments. The debaters engage in two-on-two policy style debate.
“Mia’s first speaker and I’m second, because we feel that she’s more better at starting things off and I’m better at ending it off with like a big ‘boom,'” said Kristal Anderson.
Kristal and her debate partner Mia Prince debate at Washington Irving Middle School in Roslindale, Massachusetts. Mia said the hard work they put into debate has paid off.
“My favorite part about debating is definitely the trophies,” said Mia.
Wasserman said debate gives students a space to develop skills and confidence and find success.
“This summer one of our Middle School debaters said ‘my goal is to be a politician. I’m gonna be the second female president of the US’ and you know she spoke with so much confidence and so much knowledge that first of all you’d have no idea that she was 12 years old. I absolutely believe that yes, she will be able to do that,” said Wasserman
And, studies have shown that debate has tangible effects on academic achievement. Mezuk said that in her research looking at the Chicago Debate League, she has found that students who do debate in metropolitan settings have higher graduation rates, higher GPAs, and higher scores on college entrance exams, than students in similar settings with similar traits who do not debate.
“The average student in our urban debate league, they were performing below average on state tests in 8th grade and yet they get into high school, they get involved in debate and this has measurable, important impacts on their academic trajectories even at age 13, 14, 15, 16,” said Mezuk.
Like other students involved in debate, Bryce Griffin is an accomplished debater at the local and national levels. Bryce said that debate has helped her improve her critical reading and essay writing skills. Also, she said that debate has provided her with opportunities that she would not have otherwise had, including a $20,000 scholarship to attend West Virginia university.
But for Griffin, the most valuable aspect of debate is that it gives her the opportunity to have conversations about her identity and to learn how to orient herself in different spaces.
Usually in traditional policy style debate, students receive one topic to debate for the entire year. Students on the affirmative side of the debate support the topic and create plans, showing how and why the policy is important. And the team on the negative side opposes the policy.
But Griffin does neither. She doesn’t engage directly with the policy at hand. Instead Griffin engages in what she calls critical affirmatives. She adopted this new style after seeing debaters run critical affirmatives at the national championships 2 years ago. The term “run” refers to using a specific case.
“I run things that effect me on a day to day basis, right. The affirmative I am running is a criticism of the debate space, and that effects me every tournament I’m going to, it effects me when I’m at practice, it affects me when I’m writing these arguments,” said Bryce.
Debaters like Griffin use their affirmatives to critique the structure, environment, and form of debate itself.
Bryce said, “It supports someone who is economically privileged, white, cis, male, able-bodied, that isn’t really accurate of the debaters that are debating. I think that like as a trans-woman of color I don’t meet that category in many ways, and that a debate centered around being like that body is extremely violent, and that needs to change and that’s what I argue in my debate affirmative. I lay out how we have to assimilate into these resolutional discussions that isn’t accurate or able to bring back to anyone’s community.”
Bryce shifts discussion away from the policy oriented topic at hand and address larger issues and systems of oppression. Bryce said she chose this style of debate, because she thinks it is a privileged position to debate about policy action as if it does not affect people in day to day life.
She experiences these barriers when she debates on the national circuit. In these tournaments, she is often up against big teams coming from schools with a lot of resources, funding, and coaches. This makes it harder for debaters coming from schools with less resources. So, instead of playing by the traditional rules, critical debaters like Griffin include spoken word and other performance methods in each round as tools to challenge the culture and exclusivity of debate.
“…Each round is a chance to break down the hegemonic power that will always chose to exclude bodies. Each round is a chance to create a space for academic resistance. Each round the topic is a representation of the problematic norms that recreate quiet violence. In this round, voting affirmative is a rejection of quiet violence, it’s also an endorsement of the affirmative methodology that incentivizes our form of knowledge production,” read Griffin. This is the ending of a spoken word poem she wrote to add to a critical affirmative.
The BDL and other non-profit debate leagues are also working to change the culture of debate.
The Rhode Island Urban Debate League, BDL’s neighbor league, is adopting a new system that encourages personalized arguments. Executive Director of RIUDL Ashely Belanger, known as the Executive Revolutionary by her students and colleagues, said that in most urban debate leagues, students are given a ready made packet of resources and evidence. RIUDL has decided to get rid of these packets.
“There’s really not a lot of room for creativity or organic learning, so we took a big risk and chucked the whole idea of a core files packet,” said Belanger.
Belanger said chucking the packets will hopefully help students make more creative, personal cases. She’s been working with with University of Rhode Island professor Kate Morrison to develop this new personalized argumentation method. Belanger said they are using a tree metaphor to describe this process to the debaters: “So the roots are the resolution for a year, they are your individual interests and they’re your place and your community and how those things all sort of come together. And then working with finding a seed article that kind of identifies what your plan might look like and developing those branches of an argument that supports where your individual interests, your location within this broader context fit, and how you may argue that against another team.”
But Wasserman said the current style of debate is also revolutionary for students, during the season and when the season’s over. Wasserman said, “We think that that is leading towards issues of racial justice, is helping students become leaders in communities that they will bring to college campuses, that they will bring to places that they will get involved afterwards, and so that student voice is really critical also.”