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Young speakers came to Yankton last week for the annual State Debate Tournament. SDHSAA Photo.
Young speakers came to Yankton last week for the annual State Debate Tournament. SDHSAA Photo.

High School Debate & Speech Education

Mar 6, 2013

Most years, the beginning of March brings me to the South Dakota State Debate Tournament. Last weekend, I had the pleasure of judging that august event in Yankton. Short of snuggling with my beloved, I am hard-pressed to think of a better way to spend a winter weekend than listening to some of the sharpest kids in the state debate transportation policy, the goals of the criminal justice system and the dangers of a rising China.

These young debaters conduct themselves with exemplary class and civility. While their schoolmates can barely stand to tuck in their shirts, the debaters argue and hustle and relax between rounds in neckties and dress shoes as comfortably as Mad Men. As they debate, I never hear them resort to the personal or ideological attacks that I see adults lob daily in our blogospheric conversations. Our high school debaters respect their opponents and focus their vigorous arguments on evidence and logic (with, I will grant, the occasional forays into wild suggestions that increased spending on highways will lead to nuclear war).

At State Debate and tournaments throughout the speech season, our kids often do more work than they will do in an entire semester of speech class. When I teach speech, I usually have students do five or six big speeches in a semester. Debaters may make ten or twelve speeches in one tournament. Debaters make these speeches in front of judges from other towns. After the majority of their speeches, debaters take fire from competitors determined to prove them wrong. After every tournament (except State, of course), the debaters read their ballots, review their notes, do more research and load up for another weekend of verbal battle.

South Dakota's high school speechmakers develop a vital academic skill that I hear degraded all too often in school. We teachers often say, "There's no one right way to teach." But we often hear fellow professionals denigrate teaching by lecture as the wrong way to teach. "I don't want to just stand here and lecture," say too many educators. I get the impression lecture gets a bad rap from bad lecturers who never took debate and learned to give a good speech.

One of the best teachers I ever had was Dr. Rodney Bell, history professor at SDSU. I don't know if he did high school debate, but he could give a heck of a speech. He came to class armed with a briefcase full of well-worn notes. He held forth all class period on the ancient Greeks, the stirrup, or the Roaring Twenties. He spoke as if history mattered. If he had ever stopped after ten minutes and said, "But enough from me; how about you students pair and share your feelings about Sparta?" I'd have said, "No, sir! Please keep talking!"

More teachers should teach like Dr. Bell did. More students should take debate to learn how to give good speeches. Every student should learn the vital skills you can see on display each year at the State Debate Tournament.

Editor's Note: Cory Heidelberger is our political columnist from the left. For a right-wing perspective on politics, please look for columns by Dr. Ken Blanchard every other Monday on this site.

Cory Allen Heidelberger writes the Madville Times political blog. He grew up on the shores of Lake Herman. He studied math and history at SDSU and information systems at DSU, and is currently teaching French at Spearfish High School. A longtime country dweller, Cory is enjoying "urban" living with his family in Spearfish.


10:43 am - Wed, March 6 2013
Roger Holtzmann said:
All three of my daughters participated in debate in high school. The intellectual and academic benefits of the activity - poise while speaking in public, research skills, learning to evaluate an issue from both sides - are considerable. I am convinced, however, that the social aspect of debate was equally important: when your peer group is made up of intelligent, high-achieving, motivated kids - those who read more than the sports page in the newspaper and are often taking AP classes - good things will happen. Peer pressure isn't always a bad thing.
06:11 pm - Wed, March 6 2013
Roger, I believe I've had the pleasure of judging your daughters in past years. Fine girls!

And you're right: the social aspect of debate is huge. It's practice for networking among future movers and shakers. I visited our Senators' offices a couple summers ago, and I met former South Dakota debaters working for both Johnson and Thune.

There is something unique about the socializing that goes on at debate tournaments. Kids hang out with kids from other schools between rounds. Does that happen at sports contests?
04:31 pm - Thu, March 7 2013
Jo Ann said:
Dr. Bell was the best! His favorite periods were the ones of major social upheaval, I wish I could remember the phrase he always used. Something about man's view of himself, man's view of the cosmos, man's view of himself in the cosmos . . . . from ancient Egypt to American Between the Wars, he used the same phrase.
And he was excited about it.
Google is no help in finding any information about him or anything he might have published.
10:04 am - Fri, March 8 2013
Elisamarie Garner said:
I'm a old Colorado DI (Dramatic Interp) competitor and if it weren't for Speech and Debate I would not be graduating from college with a Bachelors of Science in Sociology. Speech and Debate not only gave me the skills to articulate an effective argument but also the interest to become a social interpretor. Thank you to Coach Carochi and all the other coaches and judges out there for giving row boats like myself a rutter with which we find our ways.
10:37 am - Fri, March 8 2013
Kelly Bryant said:
To this day, I still feel one of the greatest gifts my coach and speech & debate gave me was the ability to reason on both sides of any subject. The rationality to play devil's advocate, the good sense to look into the pros and cons of any decision and the dual thought process to settle differences with diplomacy all fall into this category and not a day goes by without my benefitting from employing at least one of these talents.
While not all students will or want to go onto typical debate type careers they will all need to make rational decisions and get along with the ever changing world around them; I can't think of a better way to prepare them.
10:51 am - Fri, March 8 2013
Michael Brubaker said:
I taught for many years at the college and high school levels. Additionally, I was fortunate to coach speech and debate at those levels as well. Recently, I was invited to judge a local debate tournament involving multiple high schools. Oh, the memories that returned. I thought of the students with whom I had the opportunity to work. I wondered about where they might be and the lives they might now lead. Of course, I wonder how our instruction might have affected their lives. The opportunity to work with the kids in a setting to teach them how to listen, analyze what they heard, respond in an analytical manner and appreciate the thoughts of others -- how can that be measured? I can only hope that my work with those students was appreciated as much as I appreciated the opportunity to interact with them. I would hope that they can still name, explain and support their thoughts and when listening to others, participate with an understanding ear that can use objective refutation.
06:25 pm - Sun, March 10 2013
Michael, you touch on one of the most important parts of judging speech events. Whenever I meet a new judge who's wondering how to critique a debate or an interp round, I remind them that our first job is to be teachers: tell the kids what they did well, and tell them what they can do better and how they can do it better.

Elisamarie: competitive speech as a rudder -- that's an image that will stick with me!

Kelly: right on! And no matter what career they pick, all kids will someday have to walk into job interviews, study their audiences closely, and convince those employers that they know their stuff. Debate is the perfect training for that stressful test.

09:42 pm - Sun, March 10 2013
Cory: you and our readers might be interested in the latest episode of Spotlight@Northern. Professor Schaff and yours truly interview Anthony Wachs, the coach of our debate team. It can be viewed on channel 12 or you can watch it online:
07:04 am - Tue, March 12 2013
anonymous said:
Mr Brubaker (I'm still intimidated by him), I remember well your team - Robin Gray (later my debate partner at Augie), Mike Mullins, Brenda Aase, and many others. To this day, many of us from the 1970s debate circuit remain friends. All that I stay in touch with were well served in their careers by the skills they developed at the hands of Mike Pfau and George Bauder (we all went to Augie's debate camp in those days).

Cory, I don't think that picture is from this year. That looks like my daughter Emily's partner, Casey Klatt, in back. Are you sure the picture isn't from a tournament last year?

Jake said he saw you in Yankton - he still talks about hunting pheasants with you. I think he wants us to teach you how to handle firearms :)
11:30 am - Tue, March 12 2013
Lee Schoenbeck said:
oops - didn't mean to be annonymous - that last post was from Lee Schoenbeck
05:06 am - Mon, March 18 2013
Actually, Lee, that photo is from a couple years ago; I'm assuming SDMag pulled it from the SDHSAA website, which uses that photo as its debate home page photo.
12:53 pm - Thu, April 18 2013
Kate Gordon said:
I debated at Stevens High School and also at SDSU. MIke Brubaker and Dr. Harold Widvey were absolutely outstanding. The skills learned in debate whether high school or college level remain with a person throughout life. Long live debate.

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