Students put persuasive skills to test on debate team

Walla Walla High School's inaugural Debate Club consists of 15 members.

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WALLA WALLA — Calvin Brigham settles into the front of the class, prepared for the nouns hurled his way.

"Let’s do plant, roller skate and chicken," says Jean Tobin, advisor to the Walla Walla High School Debate Club, as part of the exercise.

"There was once a farmer," Brigham began, steadily unfolding the tale he took a couple of minutes to concoct in his head. "And he had all sorts of quacking animals..."

His yarn about a chicken named Frank who climbs a bean stalk, and has a chance encounter with a roller skate, earned some chuckles from the teens sitting in the room.

Yet the "tall tale" challenge in a debate competition is not to be taken too lightly, as the teens must balance cohesiveness and creativity in their ideas while delivering them in a clear, confident voice.

Although challenging, Brigham tackled the exercise easily enough, supported by the reassurance of his team members, who have all taken a turn at public speaking, whether delivering speeches, arguing points or reciting prose.

The 15 members of Wa-Hi’s inaugural Debate Club have learned that being persuasive in an argument means doing research and using facts. It means speaking clearly and confidently, and using gestures or facial expressions as needed to carry a point.

Participation in the club means lessons in history, politics, social sciences, reading and writing, and even drama. There is the need to know current and past events. The students must write clearly and then recite what they’ve learned in a commanding way.

And then there are the subtle embellishments, often dramatic, that can add animated persuasion and liveliness to an argument or speech.

Tobin was already familiar with the benefits teens can gain as part of a debate club before becoming advisor. Tobin, a fourth-grade teacher at Green Park Elementary, was a member of her high school debate team, and attended Whitman College on scholarship as part of the college’s team.

"It’s always been something that’s been dear to my heart," she said, and becoming Wa-Hi’s first debate club advisor was a natural fit. Her daughter, Rosa Tobin, is also a team member.

Establishing a team at Wa-Hi had been a goal for Tobin, and with help from Whitman College’s debate team coach and other supporters, the team launched this school year.

The team was formed as an ASB club, with WIAA recognition so the group can compete with other schools. The club has so far participated in two tournaments, and had plans to compete in Othello this weekend, weather permitting.

A group of about 20 teens got together over the summer for an initial "mini" camp. From there, the teens began to learn the mechanics of debating, and the various categories they might participate in during a competition.

From that initial group, about 15 core members have stuck with the team to date. The students are primarily freshmen, yet all members have bonded through a shared passion for learning and some contagious lively energy.

Tobin explained how the teens have learned that in a serious debate, they must be ready to debate each side of a topic.

"They have to research both sides and argue both sides," she said. "It really teaches you to see that there are a lot of different sides to an argument."

Participation is also a balance between heavier topics and those that students can choose on their own to have some fun.

While the more traditional "public forum" and Lincoln-Douglas debates have challenged the teens to learn about economic sanctions or the U.S. troops surge to Afghanistan, there is also room for more light-hearted topics during individual events.

In an "expository" event, for example, the teens use visuals to convey the evolution or history of a subject.

Hope Grant-Herriot, 15, chose the history of chewing gum for her expository topic, and begins her memorized speech by popping a piece of gum from her mouth onto a chewing wrapper.

"My next expository is going to be on men’s facial hair," she said.

Kera Parsons, 14, chose passages from "The Little Mermaid" fairy tale, and the Alfred Noyes poem "The Highwayman" as her entry for the interpretive reading category. She borrowed ideas from each narrative to tackle the question of whether there is anything worth dying for.

"You get to pick what you read, so you get to read something that you really enjoy," she said.

Parsons, a freshman, said the club has also thrown together teens who might not have interacted so much as part of the daily school routine.

Rosa Tobin, 15, said she gleans something new from each competition, and also finds the club has helped her academically.

"It’s surprising every time, because it is so interesting," she said about the debates. "You learn about so many different political things. And it helps so much for school, like note-taking."

And then there are the more carefree interactions that naturally spring up as the teens bond during practices or competitions.

"We debate about debating sometimes," Grant-Herriot said.

Maria Gonzalez can be reached at mariagonzalez@wwub.com or 526-8317.
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