First Diversity Recruitment and
Retention in Debate Ideafest
Edited by Gordon R. Mitchell
University of Pittsburgh
Published by Office of the Dean
University of Pittsburgh
Ideafest convened at
June 10-11, 1997
Urban Debate League Panel
Edward Lee, Betty Maddox, Larry Moss, Shanara Reid,
Krsna Tibbs, Melissa Wade, George Ziegelmueller
Audience question: How did you engage the students when you were starting with little or no debate tradition?
Larry Moss: To attract students, we had to play a little bit outside the rules. Most images are that debaters are nerds. That obviously can't happen, so we worked on developing a certain style, a kind of swagger, to make the students comfortable with what they were doing, to create an image that was sensitive to where they were. It's a difficult task; at this age, evolving adolescents are coming into man/womanhood. We took an aggressive stance, saying that we were going to change the nature of debate in Georgia. We're having to develop new strategies now, for example to try to bring more women into the activity. One thing that was effective in the beginning was that if the debaters were saying that they were "bad," I would tell them to put up by going out to compete against white schools, then come back. All the new kids coming in must read about the history of the team. These [first-generation debaters such as Eric, Rasheed and Krsna] had swagger. They made novices practice walking into the assembly. We would all come into the assembly together and sit down at the very front. This was done self-consciously to educate judges who thought that perhaps we were not ready to debate. We had to take a lot of losses early on, but we were debating at a certain level to educate the community. Judges would vote against us on the ballot, but driving home, they would think, "These guys were good." We didn't allow race to affect what we thought about the decisions, although it was always there in front of us. At one tournament in Alabama, in the coaches' lounge, they kept insisting that I was the bus driver. They said, "Hey, where did you park the bus?" The number one thing is to challenge the kids, to ask them to put it on the table.
Shanara Reid: Larry Moss recruited at middle schools, and he came to my magnet school. I started shy and had no self-esteem. Debate changed me; it made me very aggressive, cocky, and conceited because of my confidence. I got a 3.4 GPA with 1070 SATs and was accepted at 23 schools. Debate gave me a side road out.
Edward Lee: I appreciate debate as pedagogy. It has motivated my pursuit of knowledge and critical thinking. Most of what I know has been learned through debate; it's my main educational tool. I'm now pursuing this at the University of Alabama.
Betty Maddox: Edward was in my speech class, and I saw something (a potential) in him which led me to believe that he would benefit from this activity. He is really modest as he speaks about his success. His junior and senior years in high school were successful ones in debate (breaking in at least five or six tournaments). With Carrie Crenshaw he really blossomed. It is real important for debaters to recognize that they have skills that are just as sharp (or could be as sharp) as anyone else of other racial, gender or economic characteristics thought to be more advantageous in an effort to succeed. It is also important that they develop a sense of discipline. Different from Larry, we developed this by insisting that the men wear ties. This, too, increased their sense of pride in their participation (as African-Americans) in debate. They already had enough reason to be proud but many of them did not know it yet. And some of them, skeptical at first, found that they did indeed have the skills and potential for success in competition with other students from private schools and the predominantly white arena (often male) in this intellectual activity called debate. At Harper, we started with a budget of $700.00 our first year. After that year, I submitted our successful record to the coordinator of the debate program, Dr. Regina Johnson, and asked how much we could request for the coming year. She was impressed and suggested that I go for whatever I thought we would need. So, for the coming year we requested about six times as much as we had requested for our first active year. With each year thereafter, participation and winning performances increased. The skills further developed through debate were noticed by teachers and other students in the classroom.
It is very important that we find ways to get principals, board members, and others in influential positions in our school communities to see a tournament and talk with parents and debaters. At our second annual forensic banquet, a board member who attended listened to the testimonials of the debaters and their parents. She was very impressed and was moved to promise more support to the activity. The most moving testimonials came from the students themselves. One middle school student said, "I thank god for my coach!" He said this as his pounding gesture demonstrated his sincerity. I think he might have thought himself to be in a round persuading a judge to his point of view.
Larry Moss: I was sad when Betty stopped coaching. There was competition, but we were both fighting the same thing. The one thing I would emphasize would be the importance of getting debaters to a tournament.
Krsna Tibbs: I started with in-house debates, and won them all; then I was ready for the big time. We went to the Mackintosh tournament, and after the tournament, we all made a commitment to work hard. We beat a guy with a debate scholarship using debate handbooks! We won our district and finished in the top 10 all-state. I am currently a business major, and all things that I do ... conflict resolution, researching evidence ... they are all due to debate.
George Ziegelmueller: I want to back up a step. In Detroit, I didn't find teachers with the confidence or commitment that we're seeing here. I didn't find a school district with the same confidence in debate. A perception has built up over many years that debate is bad because it is competitive. I fought many years to counter these impressions, through teacher seminars conducted for eight weeks. I saw many of the usual fears: these teachers did not know anything about debate, English or History was their primary field. I said "all teaching is communicative," let's work from there. We didn't want tournament travel right off; instead we started with an in-house league. It worked well, but there were competitive suspicions. There was no money to travel to weekend tournaments. That is a nice thing about Soros, [providing money for new teams to travel]. Another problem is magnet schools. Local programs have been discouraged because the most talented kids from some schools have been attracted to magnet schools, leaving the students without leadership skills at the other schools.
Mike Janas: George Ziegelmueller's experience is the same as mine. I've faced two major problems [in Birmingham, AL]. One is teacher retention. There is no continuity in the city schools. Two is tyrannical principals. If they don't want debate, there's not going to be a team. So a big question is how to sell debate to principals.
Betty Maddox: It's important to just get them to see a tournament and talk to parents. At our second annual banquet, a board member came and listened to the parents and the kids talking, and they were very impressed. The most moving speeches came from the middle school kids. One student said "I thank god for my coach!" (she thought she was in a round).
George Ziegelmueller: There were a lot of parents and administrators at the second banquet for the Detroit Public League, as well.
Melissa Wade: I have fancy stationery, and I constantly send letters to the Atlanta public schools when they try to kill debate. I even had to petition for Larry's school to let him come here today. We can write lots of fancy letters. At Emory, we're very fortunate. We have 60 debaters, and 20-30 are very affluent; they need to learn. The affluent among our students need to learn about those from different socio-economic backgrounds or they, like Ryan Sparacino, have the potential to grow from young naivete to adult counterproductiveness. We have an usual side benefit in our retention rate. The UDL is a major force in our virtually non-existent attrition rate. Students from Emory don't just compete to win at tournaments, they share a common task in teaching/judging/volunteering in the UDL/ENDI programs. It is a powerful antidote to "sophomore slump" to volunteer; to move outside one's self-centered issues to promote the well being of others; to see the visible hallmarks of achievement in those with whom you teach/judge. We have made the UDL part of the mandatory community service program of the Freshman Seminar program at Emory--a choice many with debate backgrounds prefer to other projects. This has brought many to Barkley Forum membership that never would have become tournament debaters (We have approximately 60 debaters who will attend at least one tournament a year; 40-45 who actively attend tournaments; approximately 20 who never attend tournaments, but work with UDL a good bit). Tournament debaters are required to judge at a minimum of 2 tournaments with UDL students (regular Georgia circuit or UDL only) per semester as part of their contribution to the debate team. It cannot be stressed enough that affluent students (both Emory debaters and regular Georgia circuit high school debaters from affluent backgrounds) benefit equally with UDL students in the dialogue created across the common task that is debate competition. As the late Tazanya Maddox (Betty's daughter) said after the ENDI her junior year in high school, "I see more of our similarities than our differences when we are working on a debate argument together."
Larry Moss: The retention problem is related to principals. In my approach, I say "Here's a trophy. What's your football team done lately?" It's also very important to get principals to appoint the proper coach.
Myron King: What about people in districts where there is no debate tradition? How do you persuade a school board of the importance of debate before a league is formed?
George Ziegelmueller: Just do it. Don't wait for the school board. That will be the last place to go. You must start out with teachers. Later, [to get the administration behind it], you can do things like find out who the biggest football rival is, and say that we beat them.
Melissa Wade: Another thing you can do is recycle trophies and gavels. Kids are starved for these kinds of things. We recycle Emory debate trophies for the high school tournaments--but several high schools have started donating their trophies to our efforts. We expect an accelerating state-wide recycling program for the trophies this year. Call alums and beg them to judge. There's no reason to pay students [on your college team] to judge. You can run a tournament for free.
Beth Breger: In certain schools, principals can move mountains. There are over 100 schools in New York, with populations in which 70% of the families are on welfare.
Mike Janas: We use the fine arts co-ordinator in the Birmingham public schools.