Speech & Debate Team – Update!

Disclaimer: I’m writing this post while jet-lagged and delirious at the airport in Abu Dahbi, so please excuse any errors. Excited to meet Andrew and Kelly in India for Christmas though–I’ll post pictures after!

A couple of months ago, I wrote about my goal of starting a Speech & Debate team at my school. At the time, I had just attended a Speech & Debate coaches training session, and was excited about giving my students the opportunity to participate in B.E.S.T. (Bulgarian English Speech Tournament)—a Bulgarian non-profit organization started by some of my Fulbright colleagues. With our first tournament freshly behind us, I think I’m well overdue for an update; but first, I want to tell you about getting our little fledgling team started!

After the coaches training, I knew I wanted to start a team, but I had no idea how I was going to make it happen. My students are already involved in so many extracurricular activities, and I was worried they’d write this off immediately because of their other commitments. Additionally, I knew that none of my students had formally debated before, and most had no idea what a Speech & Debate tournament would entail (let’s be serious…I didn’t really either).

I knew my first step was to generate a some buzz and curiosity, so I decided to accomplish that the same way I always generate buzz and curiosity—hang ridiculous fliers of myself everywhere. Without giving away too many details, I advertised an upcoming information session to share more about this mysterious “B.E.S.T.” organization.

All the cool kids are doing it!

All the cool kids are doing it!


What on earth is BEST?

It was amusing to watch my students look at the fliers and either laugh hysterically or roll their eyes (I like to think more laughed hysterically, but it’s hard to say). Either way, my fliers did the trick, and I had about 30 students show up to my information session. I had prepared a nice power point deck with an overview of each event in the competition and some videos to help students conceptualize exactly what they were getting into. However, as luck would have it, the local government decided that the day of my information session was a great day to cut power to my school’s quadrant of the city to perform routine maintenance. Fabulous…looks like I won’t be using our media room’s TV to present.

Fortunately, I had a little advanced notice, and was able to run to the local Office One Superstore (think 1/10th of an Office Depot) to print copies of my presentation. For the videos, I simply held my computer screen facing the students…I do that pretty often in class, so it worked out just fine. Since these events might be new for you (as they recently were to my students and me), I’ll give you a quick overview, as I did my students.

B.E.S.T. gives students the opportunity to compete in speech and/or debate events. There are 4 main speech events: poetry, prose, duo, and oratory. Each event has a number of specific rules, but I’ll keep it pretty general here. I’ve included examples from U.S. tournaments if you are interested!

Poetry – students must present a piece of poetry in an “interpretive” way, telling a story, and bringing the audience on an “emotional journey.”

Prose – students must present a piece of prose (story, play, or other literary work) in an “interpretive” way, telling a story, and bringing the audience on an “emotional journey.”

Duo – a pair of students must perform a scene from any published book, play, or poem.

Oratory – students must write and perform an original speech that addresses a problem, raises awareness for an issue, or rallies support for a cause.

Students who choose to compete in World Schools Debate (there are many kinds of debate, but B.E.S.T. opts to use the World Schools format) work on teams of three to argue either an affirmative or negative position for a given controversial topic. This type of debate has a specific structure that the students must follow.

In the roughly six weeks between the information session and our first tournament, I’ve had a group of about 15 dedicated students coming to practice each week. During our debate practices, we reviewed World Schools Debate theory and discussed the topics provided for our first tournament: Military action against ISIS, paying reparations to the European Roma, taxing men to close the gender pay gap, voting rights and informed citizenry, online dating, and nationalism in schools. In addition to understanding the topics at great length, students must be ready to debate both sides of a stated issue on these themes. That’s a lot to cover in 6 weeks!

With my speech competitors, we talked about delivering effective presentations and how to take the audience on an “emotional journey.” Acting/performing has never been my forte, but I did my best to give my students all the information they needed to be successful.

As the tournament approached, I was very aware that my team was probably not adequately prepared for the competition we would face. While many other teams have been competing in these tournaments for a couple of years, we were still getting comfortable with the basics. Knowing this, I repeatedly emphasized my expectation that we work hard and do our best, but that having a successful weekend wasn’t contingent on winning a trophy. Instead, I challenged my students to treat this as a learning experience. I briefly considered skipping the December tournament so that we would be better prepared for February, but in the end I decided to employ the same ‘trial by fire’ method that i had found effective in my own training.

Last Saturday morning, my students and I took a bus to Lovech, where the tournament would be held. We were joined by students from the Economics School in Silistra, whom I had also helped coach a little (they were new to the tournament as well). The opening ceremony was exhilarating! There were several hundred Bulgarian high school students in attendance, and I got a kick out of watching many of them quietly rehearse their pieces and debate cases to themselves during the opening ceremony.

In front of the covered bridge in Lovech

In front of the covered bridge in Lovech (Hristina, Dorotea, Niki, Kaloyan, Galen, Christian, Simeon)

After that, the events started! I wished my students luck in their first event, and then headed to judge a debate (many of my colleagues and I served as both coaches and judges for the weekend). Once I was done judging, I hurriedly searched for my teams, eager to hear how they had done. I saw my 12th grade debate team heading quickly towards me with huge smiles on their faces. “Good,” I thought. They must have won! Niki, one of the best English speakers at my school, was the first to reach me.

“How’d it go?,” I asked.

Never losing his smile, Niki said something along the lines of “WE. GOT. KILLED.”

At about the same time, my other debate team arrived with a similar story. “Michael…they were MACHINES,” Christian said. “They would not be able to walk through a metal detector because they were MACHINES.” (It turns out this team was full of machines, as they eventually went on to win the entire tournament…unlucky first draw for my 10th graders!).

I huddled the team together and encouraged them to think about what they had learned from the experience. What did the other teams do well, and what could we learn from them?

We lost our two debates that evening as well, but each team felt they had made marked improvement from their first debate. “That’s what this weekend is all about,” I reminded them.

Kaloyan prepping

Kaloyan prepping

Getting ready for debate #2

Getting ready for debate #2

One of my students competed in the oratory event, and did a nice job presenting her piece on corruption in Bulgaria. She had been writing/practicing her speech up until the moment she got in front of the audience, and I was proud of her for having the courage to present despite inadequate time to prepare.

Playing pool between debates (Galen, Simeon)

Playing pool between debates (Galen, Simeon)

Dorotea, Niki

Dorotea, Niki

Our fortunes changed the next morning, with both of our debate teams notching a win! Granted, one of them was thanks to a “bye,” but hey, a win is a win! My team was excited to end the weekend on a high note, and we celebrated by going out to dinner as a team. One of the teachers requested the band play Бяла Роза (White Rose), and we all danced the horo together (I talk about my first experience with the horo in this post) to celebrate a fun weekend. Two of the girls from the Economics school managed to take 1st and 5th place in the oratory competition!

Simeon, Galen, Kaloyan, Christian, Dorotea, Niki

Simeon, Galen, Kaloyan, Christian, Dorotea, Niki

I was pleased that despite not winning any awards, my team was in high spirits on the bus ride back to Silistra. Instead of worrying about the loss, they were already making plans for how we could do better in the next tournament in February. Their efforts were redoubled, and I saw a level of focus and enthusiasm that just wasn’t there before. Once again, the ‘trial by fire’ method had proven effective!

I was really proud of my students, and can’t wait to see more great things from them. Remember…they are doing all this in a FOREIGN LANGUAGE. Here is the message I posted bragging about them on Facebook (I have a separate account with just my students/colleagues):

“INCREDIBLY proud of Християнчо Бачков, Doroteà Decheva, Kaloyan Rosenov Mixalew, Христина Тихова, Niki Nedelchev, Симеон М-К, and Galen Nedelchev for their first ever Speech & Debate tournament performance this weekend!!! You all did a fantastic job against really tough competition. I’m inspired by your determination and intelligence, and can’t wait for our next tournament in February! Keep up the great work!”

9 thoughts on “Speech & Debate Team – Update!

  1. Michael, I love reading your blog. You continue to amaze me! It’s like — you travel to Bulgaria so I don’t have to! And now I almost wish I could go, too. Huge hugs to you and Andrew and Kelly. Merry Christmas! — Peg


  2. I am very impressed by your presentation, ingenuity, and your students. Way to go Michael. Also, I am interested in the, what looks like, paper snowflakes hanging on a bulletin board in one of the pictures. Do you know how they were made?
    Aunt Jean


    • Sorry for the slow response here! Holiday travel left me a little behind. Unfortunately, those were just hanging in a random room, and I have no idea how they were made. I wish I could find out for you, but these were taken at a school on the other side of the country. Happy New Year!


  3. Michael, I am so glad I came across your blog! I am leaving for Bulgaria in two weeks from Ohio to study abroad in Blagoevgrad. I have been considering applying for a Fulbright ETA and your blog offers great insight into what it would be like. Thank you and I wish you continued luck in the new year!


    • Thanks, Angela–great to hear from you! Let me know if I can help out in any way. I know two other Americans in Blagoevgrad who I’d be happy to put you in touch with. Feel free to send me an e-mail if you want their names/contact info.


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