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!”

Speech and Debate

Fulbright grantees are expected to have an impact that extends beyond the classroom. As such, it’s common for ETAs to supplement their teaching with community service, after-school programming, athletics, or some other such activity. Before coming to Bulgaria, I spent a great deal of time thinking about how I could leave a mark on Silistra. I toyed with the idea of organizing a soccer tournament to raise money for charity or starting a club at my school for students interested in pursuing a career in business. While I haven’t given up on those ideas, I was introduced to a new one this past weekend: Speech & Debate.

At ETA Orientation back in September, we were given a brief overview of The BEST (Bulgarian English Speech Tournament) Foundation. The group aims to “give Bulgarian learners of English a chance to practice and perfect their English speaking skills through intelligent debate and interpretive performance competitions.” Having never participated in speech or debate events, I wasn’t initially convinced this was something I wanted to pursue. However, I decided to attend training for new coaches this past weekend to learn a little more. And I’m glad I did.

After the seven hour bus ride to Sofia, I arrived at training pretty exhausted. Fortunately, the excitement of seeing friends from my ETA group (and plenty of coffee) perked me up quickly! The first few training sessions focused on the foundations of debate: how to craft a logical argument, how to support it with evidence, how to create mechanisms that accomplish a proposed solution. The real fun started, however, when we broke into teams and engaged in our first debate. The topic was medical decision-making. More specifically, I had to argue that parents should NOT have the final say in decisions regarding their children’s health. Without prior debating experience, my group and I struggled to piece together a strong argument. Fortunately, we had the help of some experienced Bulgarian high school debaters to help show us the ropes! The debate itself was invigorating, but like many of my peers, it made me a little uncomfortable. Articulating an argument and poking holes in your opposition’s isn’t easy, especially for the first time. The next morning, we had a second mock debate, in which I argued that handguns should be banned. While the process still felt new, everyone made considerable progress from just the night before.

Saturday afternoon and Sunday were spent reviewing the “Speech” portion of the program. Participants can select to compete in the following categories:

  • Poetry – students read a seven minute work of poetry with a beginning, intro, build-up, climax, resolution, and conclusion; students should take listeners on an “emotional journey”
  • Prose – students read a seven minute work of prose (fiction, nonfiction, novels, or plays) with a beginning, intro, build-up, climax, resolution, and conclusion; students should take listeners on an “emotional journey”
  • Oratory – students present a ten minute memorized original speech on a topic of interest to them
  • Duo – a pair of students present a ten minute memorized work of poetry, prose, non-fiction, fiction, dramatic scripts, or humorous scripts; creativity and gesturing/acting are encouraged

After learning about each of the different competitions, we were broken into groups, and expected to participate in a mock competition with our peers. I was assigned poetry. Now while I’m not usually overly interested in poetry, a friend recommended I present a poem that really moved me. It’s called Tamara’s Opus by Joshua Bennett, and it’s the story of a young man with a deaf older sister. As he ages, he realizes that his lack of commitment to learning sign language has prevented him from connecting with his sister Tamara in a meaningful way. Overcome with guilt, he apologizes to her, and promises to dedicate himself fully to learning her language. The lyrics are very moving, and I’d encourage you to watch Joshua Bennett himself perform it at the White House. I actually prefer this version because it is slightly extended and a bit slower, but both are great! Once again, as someone who has never really performed, I was a bit uncomfortable with the exercise, but I had way more fun than I expected.

A few things stand out to me from the weekend that together have motivated me to participate in BEST by starting and coaching a Speech & Debate team at my school:

  • This is a fantastic opportunity for my students. One thing that really struck me this weekend was the positive impact participating in speech & debate can have on high school kids (or anyone, for that matter). I watched several video testimonials from past competitors and coaches that raved about how great the experience had been. What better chance to build confidence, presentation skills, leadership, and English language skills than a competition like I’ve described above? I’d be doing my students a disservice by not giving them this great opportunity!
  • Getting out of your comfort zone is important. I’ve talked about this before: it’s not until you are slightly out of your comfort zone that real learning occurs. I experienced that going overseas for the first time despite being terrified of flying over water (I’m past that now, thank goodness!); I experienced that living in a rural Peruvian home-stay; I’ve been experiencing that as a first-time high school teacher in Bulgaria; and most recently, I experienced that while debating my peers and presenting poetry this weekend. I know coaching something I still know very little about will challenge me, but even more importantly, I know participating will challenge my students. Competing in a competition is uncomfortable enough…imagine doing it in your second or third language! These kids have guts!
  • This is a great growth experience for me personally. Okay, here’s the selfish portion. For those of you who know me well, you know I hate conflict. In fact, sometimes I’ll bend over backwards to avoid ruffling someone’s feathers. For example, I’ve agreed to take on projects at work that really weren’t my responsibility and I can’t think of the last time I voiced a restaurant preference when a group had different opinions on where to eat. Debate will push me to engage in arguments that are important, and that I might not have otherwise. I also think the experience will help me find more support for my beliefs in some of today’s hotly contested issues.
  • A dear friend of mine was incredibly involved in Speech & Debate. I usually try to avoid getting too personal in my blog, but this has been on my mind a lot recently, so I wanted to share. Coming up in just over a week is the 4 year anniversary of my friend Drew’s passing. Drew was incredibly passionate about a lot of things, but Speech & Debate was up towards the top of that list. He coached a high school debate team and always talked about how much he enjoyed it. I always respected Drew’s ability to win just about every argument he was in, and I think his role in debate had a lot to do with that. His points were well thought out, substantiated thoroughly, and articulated perfectly. Drew would have loved everything BEST stands for, and that makes me happy.
  • BEST inspires me. Not only do I feel very strongly about BEST’s mission to develop the language and leadership skills of Bulgaria’s youth, but I also find it inspiring that a group of teachers in my shoes just a few years ago started an organization that now has hundreds of participants, has been officially chartered as a non-profit organization, and has an impact on the lives of young people all over the country. Simply put, that’s just something I want to be a part of.
BEST training group

BEST training group

On the bus ride back from Sofia (that makes 28 hours of bus travel in the last two weeks, but who’s counting?) it was clear to me that this was something I wanted to pursue. I don’t know exactly how I’m going to make it happen yet, but I’m excited about trying. Since returning Sunday night, I’ve started talking it up to students, working with colleagues to schedule an information session, and putting together a power point presentation to explain speech & debate 101.

Finally, I just wanted to give a big shout out to the BEST Committee members who organized an awesome training this past weekend. I know it gave me and others the resources and confidence to keep the program moving in the right direction!