Competition was fierce this weekend as young debaters from Baltimore’s finest elementary and middle schools met at Carver Vocational-Technical High School for a St. Patrick’s Day weekend showdown. Judges met early for training and to get our official badges, clipboards, timers, and ballots before joining the hordes of eager young arguers for granola bars and cups of juice—breakfast of champions—in the cafeteria. Nerves rose as we waited for the pairings in the elementary, novice, and junior divisions, and once they were up it was all chaos, pushing through to see match ups, sides, and then everyone was off to the races for a day of arguing about whether or not to install solar panels on all 181 or so Baltimore City Public Schools.
I judged the elementary division, whose teams of 4th and 5th graders showed surprising calm as they took turns reading prepared speeches about solar power’s ability to save the planet while also saving the school district on energy charges, and, alternately, about the solar panel’s threat to school safety (apparently a school once caught fire after a panel turned into a giant magnifying glass) and the safety of the Chinese workers who must deal with the toxic aftermath of panel production. Cross examination let these kids go at each other with such biting inquiries as, “What’s your evidence?” and “Did you write your own speech?” Ouch—going for the jugular with the ad hominem! Rebuttals ranged from the not-so-compelling “We had the best hand gestures” to the sophisticated “They did not address our arguments, so that means they concede them, and they are really good arguments.” One kid stood out for his well-timed fist slamming—the debate equivalent to the Little League glove-punch and spit—to punctuate his claims about the vicious and life-threatening nature of solar power. These kids knew their stuff, and even when they didn’t, they knew how to look like they did.
It was obvious from watching just a few rounds how good debate is for kids. These students knew how to make an argument, how to listen to someone else’s—a rare accomplishments for many adults, I’d hazard—and how to articulate their own experiences in critical ways. The arguments about solar panels gave students a place to argue about how the real conditions of their schools make learning difficult. How can we learn if we are shivering in coats and gloves because the city can’t afford to heat our schools, or even fix the broken windows that are letting in all the drafts? How can we learn if we are sweltering in a school with no air conditioning? Do you know any doctors or lawyers who would agree to work under those conditions? No, I don’t. You kids are right—that is ridiculous, and something needs to be done. No one convinced me the answer was to install solar panels, but they certainly convinced me that we better fix up the schools and listen to the students themselves if we want to know what’s wrong with their places of learning, because they can certainly tell us.
Like the other judges, I took it all very seriously, writing down each argument on my flow sheet, timing everyone down to the second, shaking hands with the debaters and thanking them for their fine performances. I wrote extensive notes for each speaker that, if they are anything like I was as a competitive debater on the early 1990s Idaho circuit, they will pore over to celebrate or figure out why they didn’t win. Because we all think we won, if we’re being honest. The Baltimore Urban Debate League can only hold as many debate rounds as they have judges, and from just this one day’s experience, I’d argue we need all the debate rounds we can get to cultivate the skills these student naturally possess and train ourselves to listen to them. Put yourself on their volunteer list.