Students wage war of words at debate contest

Grant D. Crawford | Daily Press

Riverfield Country High School students Robert Hale, left, and Ethan Shaw prepare for their debate at Sequoyah High School in Tahlequah.

A group of students from around the region gathered at Sequoyah High School Friday to wage a war of words in an Oklahoma Secondary Schools Activities Association qualifying debate competition.

Sequoyah High School is hosting speech, drama, and debate competitions this weekend, but Friday was solely for debate competitors. Qualifying tournaments typically begin in late October, and this was the last one for students to make it to regionals by finishing either first, second or third place. The students have been working toward this goal since the beginning of school.

"Most schools have a class devoted to their preparation for tournaments," said Amanda Ray, speech and theater teacher. "It's too hard to not have a class. If you were trying to rehearse after school, there's just too much. And my kids are the ones who are involved in everything - they're in National Honor Society, they're in Student Council, they're in track."

Three types of debate are available for students to enter: policy debate, public forum, and Lincoln-Douglas. Policy debates involve teams of two, and the topic typically involves a current national question to be tackled through contrastive argument, cross-examination, and refutation. Each team also argues both sides of the topic.

Ethan Shaw, from Riverfield Country Day School, said he switched from policy debate to Lincoln-Douglas debate, which has turned out for the better.

"The first year I was in cross-examination debate or policy debate," Shaw said. "It wasn't really my thing, but now I'm in [Lincoln Douglas] debate, which is a solo event where you talk about morals, and it's really worked out for me. It's super-fun."

One of Shaw's topics for the debate competition was whether illegal drug use should be treated as a matter of criminal justice or of public health. He had to argue for both sides of the topic, but was not worried, since his experience as a performer has taught him to relax when speaking in public.

"Actually, I do a lot of acting at my school and outside of my school," he said. "I've been really good on stage, so the debate coach recruited me, because I didn't have fear of talking in public and I was a fluent speaker. He recruited me and I was like, 'OK, that's fine, I like arguing.'"

In the public forum debate, the topics consisted of controversial issues. Copious amounts of research are required for the students to be well-versed in their subjects.

"Today we're debating whether the United States should promote market housing," said Braden Salazar, Muldrow High School junior. "So it's kind of argumentative needs - whether we need more market housing or whether we need rent control."

All of the students who visited SHS wore dress clothes for their debate, donning ties and sport coats.

"It helps with the professional feel of things," said Salazar. "It's just to look classy. If you're giving a debate, you might as well look nice while you do it."

Not all of the students who join debate are prolific speakers at the beginning. For many students, it takes a while to shake off the nerves that come with speaking in public.

"That's just part of it," said Amy White, MHS debate coach. "I think all the way through you fight nerves; you fight being a little bit unsure. We do that all through life."

Because most debates require students to argue from two different perspectives, it allows them to approach topics from all angles. White said many students open themselves up to new ideologies that maybe they had never considered before.

"It doesn't necessarily have to change who you are, although it sometimes does a little bit," she said. "But it does force you to say, 'Hey, we're all human beings. We're just trying to get along in the world and you may look different from me, you may think differently from me, you may be different, but in the end we're all human beings and we're all here.'"

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