Debate Team

A Brooklyn story on Schoolbook, about Achievement First High School's debate team, via GothamSchools:

Her classmate, Eyana Walker, 16, a member of the school’s debate team who had wielded a rapid-fire manner of delivery she’d learned at a debate boot camp this past summer, said she too had been rooting for Obama by default.

“But now, I kind of want Romney to win,” she said, explaining that by studying health care, for instance, she found Romney’s idea of handing it to the states rather than the federal government more sensible. When it comes to taxes, though, she is still on the fence.

“Both sides have pros and cons,” she said.

(Mr.) DiColandrea, who also teaches Latin and literature, said that after coaching for four years at another school – before joining the faculty at Achievement First last year – he became convinced that debate is “part of the answer to the achievement gap,” something this college-oriented charter school sees as its mission to do away with.

“It’s really an equalizer,” he added.

Two thoughts.

1. I was on the debate team in high school one year. I may have been its "president." Depending on the month, that meant I was president of anywhere a team totaling between 2 and 5 people.

There was no Mr. DiColandrea. No coaching. There must have been some nominal faculty advisor. I remember my older brother had told me you could buy pre-made "evidence cards." I thought that was weird. We bought a whole recipe box full of them. They had arguments about unemployment -- that was the debate topic for the year. We had a couple local debates, and then went to a tournament, 2-on-2.

We went up against Bronx High School of Science. I think they were top seed. Two kids just as dorky as us, but wearing suits, wheeled in 2 large file cabinets full of "evidence cards." We proudly displayed our recipe box and tried to "make it seem a little bigger."

Then the Bx Science kids opened. They talked very fast, speed reading aloud. We assumed they would lose just on that, because it was annoying. Turned out that was actually a preferred technique -- to "spread," to talk as fast as you can, because each "point you made" had some type of scoring value.

We may have lost by the largest margin in scholastic debate history. However, I do remember getting some excellent snacks on that trip.

2. This brings me to my second point. Folks in our business often debate the value of "extra-curricular activities." But I think we need a new vocabulary.

a. There are "well coached extra curricular activities," which happen to have a particularly skilled adult at the helm, like the Achievement First debate team.

b. Then there are "regular ol' extra curriculars," with little effective coaching input from the adults, but nonetheless, some legitimate experiential value for the kids.

Sometimes these peter out over the course of the year; kids stop showing up. Occasionally they actually create enough screwing around to create problems for school culture. But often they're "pretty good." In schools that strive for excellence, it can be disorienting for the teachers and leaders to set-up such activities, expecting a result that is hopefully pretty good but quite possibly so-so for all involved.

Finally, there's the "teacher" cost and benefit of extra-curriculars. Not the cash -- renting the ball fields, renting the bus, buying equipment, etc. The teacher effect. Typically small schools like ours have teachers act as coaches.

"Well-coached activities," of course, generate teacher satisfaction. That's a benefit. Another is the chance to build some student relationships in a different context, which can pay off in class.

But "regular ol extra curriculars" impart 2 teacher costs. There's the obvious: time subtracted from the "real" teaching job (help fewer kids after school with homework, prepare less for class, etc). Then there's the less obvious: it can be psychologically disorienting for the teacher to do something so-so (or worse). And particularly for new teachers who already feel so-so in their classroom, a second domain of inadequacy can make a teacher feel a second challenging front has been opened in their war to achieve success.