Emory Report
June 26, 2006
Volume 58, Number 33


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June 26 , 2006
National debate camp means more than words

BY Beverly clark

Vanaye Kelley likes to talk—a lot. The rising 10th grader from Milwaukee, Wis. found the perfect outlet for her energy during the past two weeks at the Emory National Debate Institute (ENDI), an annual program that has spread the gospel of debate as a teaching and learning tool to school systems nationwide for 39 years.

“My friends told me it would be boring, but they’re wrong. They said I’d be missing out on a lot of fun, but education is going to get you more places in life than spending time on the street,” said Kelley, whose competitive energy was evident behind her raw skills last week in one of her first debates.

The institute is a centerpiece of Emory’s debate program, known as the Barkley Forum, and attracts both private and public school students who come to hone their debate skills.

More than half of the ENDI students come from Urban Debate Leagues (UDL), a national urban education reform movement founded in 1985 as a partnership between the Barkley Forum and the Atlanta Public Schools that has spread to cities across the country. Kelley was part of a contingent of 135 students and teachers from the recently formed Milwaukee UDL—the 20th city to join the movement.

More than 360 middle and high school students and teachers from 17 states participated in ENDI. This year’s institute included a residential program on the Emory campus, day programs for middle schoolers at Pace Academy and another at Benjamin S. Carson Honors Preparatory School for students living in Atlanta Housing Authority communities. That UDL program in particular was wildly popular and drew twice as many students than expected.

Since its founding, UDL has successfully reached thousands of inner-city middle and high school students. More than 300 schools now have chapters, and the movement represents the most explosive growth in high-school debate in the 69-year history of the National Forensic League.

“UDL is ultimately a vehicle to provide a quick, competitive way of giving kids incentive to build critical thinking and research skills,” said Melissa Maxcy Wade, director of forensics at Emory and the godmother of urban debate. “There are 40,000 students involved in urban debate today; we want to make it 10 million and bring it to every kid who can benefit from it.”

Wade and her team of dedicated debate coaches, many of them products of UDLs, have a missionary’s zeal for spreading the profound benefits of debate training: increased verbal, analytical, research and critical thinking skills; greater confidence; higher grades; fewer discipline issues; and offers of college scholarships (more than 100 colleges and universities recruit students in UDL populations for college debate scholarships).

Like the accomplished debater and coach she is, Wade has the facts to back the claims. Three years of statistics from Carson Prep’s Computer Assisted Debate program, which has reached 184 students, show that debate participants had substantial increases in reading scores with many moving as much as three grade levels in nine months, and an 82 percent decrease in discipline referrals. The White House also selected the Computer Assisted Debate project as a signature program for the Helping America’s Youth Initiative this past year.

Southside High School student Robin Ayers is a product of the Carson program and the Atlanta UDL. Wade said Ayers is emerging as one of the best urban debaters she has ever seen, and is in a sense the face of the future for competitive debate.

Ayers seems shy and reserved until she hits the makeshift podium during an ENDI practice round. After taking a deep breath, she lets it rip, words flowing in a torrent as she builds her case and picks apart the argument of the opposing team.

Elegant rhetoric isn’t part of the formula; it’s about speaking as clearly and quickly as possible. The faster you talk, the more facts you can build into your argument.

Ayers and her ENDI debate partner Ayanna Ingraham, a student at DeKalb County’s Stephenson High School, both said debate has helped them learn new things, kept them on track with academics and taken them out of their communities to meet new people from different backgrounds.

The young debaters of ENDI head back home with stronger debate skills, but also a better understanding of each other. The institute’s long, intense days are as much about molding new and experienced debaters as it is about breaking down barriers, said Wade.

“Mixing them up together is hugely important. Students from diverse backgrounds work as teams—cooperation that allows them to become friends around a common task and gain respect for one another. The suburban kids and inner-city students learn that their preconceived notions about each other are usually completely wrong. It doesn’t matter where you’re from; it’s about working hard together for a common goal,” she said. “Through debate, we are opening up the conversation across the socioeconomic divide.”