Debate Goes Virtual Connecting Students Around the World

Hundreds of debaters gathering together in an auditorium and then bustling off to various classrooms to compete in parliamentary-style rounds. That was a debate tournament a year ago. But undaunted by moving online, Poly’s Middle School debate team is going strong in 2020-2021. With 68 seventh- and eighth-graders, the team has already competed in two online tournaments and is preparing for two more in December. 

Researching such topics as banning gas-fueled cars by 2023 and using facial recognition software, the students meet with their coaches Katie Ward and Paul Johnson on Zoom twice a week to learn debate strategy, discuss their arguments, prepare with their teams, and compete against one another in practice debates. Poly Upper School students, mostly former middle school debaters themselves, help by judging the practice debates.

At the tournaments, which are run by Lower School science teacher Nishat Alikhan, students from 10 or more schools meet first in Zoom squad rooms set up by their coaches and then all come together in a Zoom tournament main room, where they receive their pairings, “room” assignments, and topic announcements. The debates takes place in breakout rooms, with parents and high school students judging and with friends and parents spectating. Moving between their squad rooms, the tournament main room, and the breakout rooms, debaters compete in four rounds over the course of the day. At the end of the tournament, debaters receive awards based on team performance and individual speaker performance.

Three of Poly’s Upper School students are passing their expertise along to talented young debaters in the community by coaching a middle school team from nearby McKinley School, who competed in the October league tournament. The Upper School debate team currently has 14 debaters competing in the EurOpen online debate tournament hosted in Hamburg, Germany. It includes over 120 teams from all across the globe.

Debating in a virtual environment has taught the students new communication skills and has opened previously unconsidered possibilities, such as participating in tournaments with students from across the country and even around the world.