Archive for Wednesday, January 5, 2000

Once again, THS debate heads to nationals

January 5, 2000

Debate is more than just debate, says Steve Harrell, debate teacher at Tonganoxie for 10 years.

"The neat thing about debate is that it's an enrichment course for everything," Harrell said.

Debate teaches the students skills in speaking, researching, writing and helps them develop interpersonal skills, Harrell said.

Students hone speaking skills during class sessions called speaker drills.

"All 26 kids will be in here talking at once," Harrell said. "They talk to the wall, they talk into space."

This helps the students overcome self-consciousness, Harrell said.

"Since they're all speaking at the same time, they have some anonymity; they have to concentrate amid other noises in the room, they hear themselves speak. Besides, it's great modeling," Harrell said. "When they're standing next to someone who's really getting into it, they're going to get into it, too."

As much of a necessary skill as is talking is learning how to be organized, Harrell said.

"The information needed to debate is so vast," Harrell said. "A long time ago, they used to say that the standard high school research paper might require as many as 60 note cards. A debater might carry 30,000 note cards."

Debater Jessica Sturgeon groaned when she recalled the chore of lugging heavy boxes full of note cards to meets.

"To a debater, stairs are the ultimate punishment," Sturgeon said.

Harrell added, "If we take a bus to a tournament, we'll fill the bus halfway with kids, and the other half is filled with boxes. If we take an overnight trip, well ..." he sighed.

Harrell, who grew up in Ellsworth and graduated from Sterling College in 1988 with a degree in speech and theater education, said he doesn't think a certain aptitude is required to excel at debate.

"It just takes lots and lots of hard work," he said.

This is especially good for students who aren't interested in athletes, but noted the team does include some athletes.

"Debate and forensics will fill a niche for a lot of different kids who aren't involved in sports," Harrell said. "Once they find that they can get out there and they can be competitive in the debate-realm, it self-motivates them."

The sport does seem to light a fire under some of the kids, Harrell said.

"I have colleagues who have to require that their students participate in tournaments," Harrell said. "I don't have to do that. If anything, I have to quench the fire sometimes."

Debate can practically take over someone's life, Harrell said.

"The students get so caught up in this that they'll never want to go home," Harrell said. "It gets to be like a club here in the cave."

"The cave," Harrell referred to is the windowless interior classroom where he's teaching three classes of debaters this year to a total of 62 students.

Of these students, 56 competed in tournaments this year and of those, 31 medaled.

"I can hardly believe that," Harrell said.

He paused, looked across the trophy-filled room where he has taught for 10 years, then said, "But then again, I can still hardly believe we won our first medal."

In a way, he said, that first medal, won in the fall of 1992 at Schlagel High School, Kansas City, Kan., meant more to him than anything else his students have won since.

"You never forget that first one," he said.

Since then, his students have held their own, even against stiff competition.

"I think this is a true example that you rise to your competitor's level," Harrell said. "Eventually, year after year, we got a little more competitive, and now the kids don't know that they're not supposed to be able to beat a 5A or 6A school."

Last year the team qualified for nationals, and again this year, which means the debaters will be traveling to Rochester, New York, this summer to compete.

Unfortunately, for those who would like to watch the team in action, the season has ended. Further, debate teams don't participate in competitions held at their own schools because local judges (who might be biased in favor of the home team) are used.

"Debate is not a great spectator sport," Harrell said, chuckling. "We never debate at home, you have to go away to see us. It's always an away game."

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