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!