Debate Class – 1st Session

There are so many ideas that seem brilliant on paper but are terrible in execution. On the precipice of anything innovative, fear of the unsuccessful execution of a successful idea is palpable.

We’ve done the research that says we should try it, we have approval from the appropriate parties, and we have a plan in place and the space to execute it. In every measurable sense of the word, we’re ready. But will it work?

Those were my thoughts as I walked into the first day of teaching Debate Class at the North Lawndale Employment Network. I was excited and energized, and I was absolutely terrified.

Now, being on the other side of that terror, I can confidently report that the first class was a complete success, and it’s all because of our amazing clients. They were engaged and curious, vocal and attentive. Our first exercise was getting together with partners and doing introductory speeches about each other. This was partly an exercise in public speaking, and mostly an exercise in helping me learn names. One of our clients lived in Germany for 3 years. Another wants to start his own brick-laying business. These memorable quirks help get an insight into a client’s motivations and desires, and help me connect with them on a deeper level, hopefully making me a better instructor.

Next, we learned the very basic structure of an argument. Claim, Warrant, Evidence. Throughout the process, I slowly was introducing the different types of debate topics we would cover. Some of them were trivial – Dogs are better than cats, Michael Jordan is the best basketball player of all time, etc. These elicited some small reactions, mostly in jest.

Some of them were more consequential – CPS students should be required to wear uniforms. This topic started a conversation going gang affiliation and youth, and I learned a few things.

A lot of the topics we discussed, and will discuss, have a direct impact on our client’s lives. We discussed the charge from democratic gubernatorial candidate Chris Kennedy that Chicago Mayor Emanuel continues to deliberately push marginalized people of color out of Chicago. This was brought up by a client, not by me. Even though this took our learning off the rails little bit, it never got too far. Quite a few clients, seated closely to each other, were very passionate about this topic. They were talking loudly, proudly, and with conviction, but never with anger. They simply wanted to be heard.

I took advantage of the enthusiasm. “What evidence could be used to back up Mr. Kennedy’s claim, and what evidence could be used against it?” Hands went up. I don’t need to go into the details here, but the types of evidence the clients suggested had varying degrees of effectiveness. Some were anecdotal, but some involved statistics and insights that I had seen from professionals. They were getting it. In our next class, we’ll be learning how to research your argument, and we’ll be using the recent government shutdown as a focal point.

Although interruptions are bound to happen, especially when working with individuals who have been taught to hold their opinions proudly, we’re still moving forward. I even got the entire class to agree that they would try to argue for something they fundamentally disagreed with. “That’s what makes you a better debater!” one of the clients told his classmates.

Although the first session got me extremely excited for the future of this class, the best moment by far happened the next day. There was a client that missed class the day before, and another client was teaching her what we had learned. There aren’t going to be any tests, she didn’t miss any homework. They’re just that excited. And that’s how I know that we’re working with some really incredible people on a really incredible project.


-Conner Kerrigan, Business Solutions Manager & Debate INstr