Early successes in first year of Waynflete’s debate program
“The skills students develop doing debate—organizing their thoughts, learning how to present, and arguing a perspective that might be different from their own—are essential building blocks to being a citizen of the world,” says Head of School Geoff Wagg. We sat down with debate coach and English teacher Sarah Getchell to learn more about Waynflete’s new debate program.
How did you get involved in debate?
My first experience was on an internal team at Colby College. I couldn’t compete, unfortunately, because I was a two-sport athlete. My interest in debate, and in current events generally, led me to law school at the University of Michigan. I taught English literature to undergraduates during this time; it was also when I figured out that I wanted to be a teacher. After practicing law for a year, I entered the independent school world as an English teacher and residential life team leader at Worcester Academy. It was at Buckingham, Browne and Nichols School (BB&N) where I got my first taste of speech and debate coaching. The students on the BB&N hiring committee saw that I had attended law school and asked if I would be open to being their debate coach. Without knowing what I was getting myself into, I said, “Sure!”
I coached at BB&N for six years. During that time, the team grew to more than 30 students and we brought on an assistant coach. We built a student-driven culture that focused on being inclusive, being open to experimentation, and having fun, not winning (which paradoxically may have led to much more winning!). I didn’t pretend to be an expert in the first couple of years—I was learning along with them. We made sure to debate sensitive topics in an informed and thoughtful way. Toward the end of my time at BB&N, the team won the International Independent School Public Speaking Championship and consistently placed at the independent school tournaments.
Waynflete has offered mock trial and Model UN programs in the past. What new opportunities for debate do students have now?
Debate is now offered as an Upper School activity. We meet at least once a week but try to find other times as well, particularly as we approach tournaments. We compete in two different leagues for speech and debate: the Maine Forensics Association, which is for all Maine high schools, and the Debate Association of New England Independent Schools. We will also participate in the Maine Model UN Conference (MeMUNC) hosted by USM. It’s possible that we could offer additional programs in the future if we’re able to add an assistant coach.
Waynflete has already given middle school students the opportunity to experience debate through a weekly enrichment workshop. This is a great first step—I have kids in the Upper School program who had that experience in eighth grade, and they are definitely ahead of the game in terms of the depth of their analysis and ability to organize their thoughts.
Both the middle school and high school programs are important because there are kids out there who want options for competition that aren’t athletic. Debate also gives kids the opportunity to find their voices and to discuss important issues with nuance and respect, which complements the advising program and social-emotional learning curriculum. Middle school is really the time when students start approaching complex issues at the level that rich debate requires, so it makes sense to offer some form of speech and debate club starting in the sixth grade.
Waynflete is generally characterized as a progressive school. Do debate programs help students see both sides of an issue?
This is the great thing about a speech and debate team. It’s not as hard as you might think to discuss both sides of a hard issue, as long as you lay out clear ground rules for students. The kids know that a fundamental aspect of the team’s culture is experimenting with defending arguments that they don’t agree with. For some types of debates, you flip a coin—the side that wins gets to choose either the topic or the side. The kids frequently end up having to take stances that they don’t personally believe in. This might push them to challenge their own beliefs, to recognize the validity of another viewpoint, or to use rhetoric to better defend their own point of view.
The kids’ ability to engage with each other and to develop their own arguments (and successfully refute those of their opponents) is incredibly valuable. We watched some political debates together last year. Students observed that these really aren’t debates—they’re just an exchange of talking points, and the candidates rarely respond to each other. They saw that on the debate team, they were more willing to approach discussions and opponents with respect…and to listen. These are skills that everyone on the team will gain, skills that politicians at the highest level often seem to not possess.
Waynflete’s mission includes the goals of encouraging our students’ “responsible and caring participation in the world.” How will the skills developed on the debate team be important to our graduates?
These skills will help students become engaged citizens. As tournament administrators, we always try to pick topics that are relevant to current events today but that also allow students to learn about history. These can range from resolutions about war in Syria to the territorial claims in the South China Sea to whether the US should intervene in various conflicts. But there can also be more philosophical topics. For example, Branksome Hall, an independent school in Toronto, asked students around the world to write and deliver speeches on the prompt “We can appreciate art, even if the artist is personally reprehensible.”
Is there a connection between being a great debater and a great writer?
A great writer is not necessarily a great debater. But a great debater is more often than not a great writer. Engaging in this kind of activity requires organization, precision, rhetorical flair, and depth of analysis. The act of preparing for a tournament really helps students with their writing.
There are a few competition categories that require students to write and deliver speeches. One of our students recently placed fourth in Internationals (her first-ever international tournament) with a persuasive essay about water conservation. For the persuasive speech category, students identify a significant problem and propose a solution. She wrote a 12-minute speech, memorized it, and delivered it in an incredibly compelling way in front of a large international audience and judges from three different countries. You have to be a good writer to win a speech-writing event; we work closely to develop the writing skills of all debaters who are interested in dabbling in the world of speech. Some of my strongest former student speech writers didn’t start out as particularly skilled writers, but they worked at it and made amazing gains.
Impromptu speaking is another event with which our students have had a lot of fun. In tournaments, they have to pick one of three topics they receive on a slip of paper, take two minutes to prepare a three-to-five-minute speech, then deliver the speech. As you can imagine, there is often a big difference between the kids who enjoy writing and memorizing a 12-minute speech and those who like to think on their feet, responding to a prompt off the cuff. I encourage students to try both impromptu and prepared events, and the major international tournaments we participate in require that they do so.
What are your hopes for the future of the program?
Mainly I hope for a really diverse team and for all Waynflete students to feel like there is a place for them on the team, regardless of their confidence in their speaking and debating abilities. Students have lots of different motivations for joining the team. Some report that they’re just looking for another stage on which to perform, some want to learn how to win arguments, and others say that they’re on the team because they want to gain confidence in public speaking. I hope that no matter where the kids think they are in terms of rhetorical skill, desire to compete, or knowledge of political topics, they all feel like there’s a place for them on the team.
I also want them to be able to do all the other things they’re interested in. You can be an actor, you can be an athlete…I want them to be able to do all that and not be shut out of debate. That’s one of the beautiful things about independent schools. You can experiment with all sorts of things outside your comfort zone or your realm of expertise.
Finally, while they’re building their public speaking and writing skills, and debating challenging topics, I want them to meet and interact with kids from all over Maine and around the world—to take advantage of the opportunity to talk about issues and to hear ideas from kids from many places who have different backgrounds and political views from their own.
Aelia Russell ’24:
One of the aspects I appreciate about debate is how exploratory it can be; we get introduced to issues we may not have formulated opinions on, and we are asked to imagine the effects this problem has on different systems and people. We also get to hear the perspectives of other debaters, from our own school and from around the world, who all bring different contexts to the issue. Even though it’s a competition, hearing other debaters’ speeches and impromptus is an opportunity to make connections and to challenge our own ideas.
For me, the opportunity to practice taking a step back from my own beliefs and forming a compelling, genuine argument for the other side of the issue, sometimes with little time for preparation, is really valuable—debating encourages me to explore other perspectives and practice speaking with confidence to convince others. It also requires me to be vulnerable to allowing my own mind to be changed. I think these are powerful skills to practice for navigating the real-world issues we are facing, especially those with intersecting problems and complex solutions. Now that debate tournaments are back in person and our team has grown, I’m excited to debate with teams at other schools, meet more people, and keep practicing together as a team.
Miles Sims-Kastelein-Henry ’24:
Debate encourages a change in perspective, allowing me to connect with others and have opportunities I wouldn’t have had otherwise. Speech and debate have challenged me to break out of previous mindsets and analyze issues from every side. Attending competitions like the International Debate competition has helped me grow both as a student and as an individual by practicing skills like public speaking, analytical thinking, and unconditional confidence. These opportunities have been invaluable.