Debate Class – 2nd Session

We learned a lot in our second week of debate class. I learned about the potential we’re unlocking in our clients, and things that we’re doing that are maybe stifling that potential. The clients learned about how the topics we’re debating have deeper meaning, and how important it is to “seek first to understand, then to be understood”.

Each cohort that goes through U-Turn Permitted has a Class President. This is someone who has the final say on group decisions and can generally shape the focus and direction of the class. Each cohort also typically has one very outspoken individual. We currently have a few, but one in particular comes to my mind. This individual speaks the most during class, has opinions about everything and, as distracting as it is, can gain everybody’s attention easily. Our second session is when I realized that I had buy-in from both the Class President and, as I call him, the Speaker of the Cohort.

With each moment I spend in Debate class, I realize more and more that the support of these two individuals is essential to achieving our goals. They help shape the mentality of the class. They can get everyone to focus when attention spans wear thin. They can rally participation in an activity when at first it seems childish or embarrassing. I know now that I cannot take their support for granted.

Another very important lesson I’ve learned is that I need to have a rock-solid explanation of the relationships between Claims, Warrants, and Evidence on day one, and review that definition on a consistent basis throughout the entirety of the class. The biggest conflict between clients came not from any particularly charged topic, but from a disagreement about the definition of a warrant. This needs to be explained and reaffirmed as often as possible.

Week two is when we really began to dive into actual debate topics. At first I was nervous about some of the more consequential topics – the government shutdown, mandatory minimums, universal healthcare, etc. I quickly learned not to be. Our clients don’t want to be protected from these conversations, they want a seat at the table. No one flew off the handle. They calmly expressed their beliefs and their reasoning for those beliefs. They were articulate and informed, and sometimes quite passionate, but never unruly.

The most satisfying moments have come when a client changes their minds in regards to a topic we’re discussing. On day two, we were discussing congressional term limits during an exercise. It goes like this – one group gives two claims and warrants in favor of term limits, the other two groups work to refute those claims and warrants. I hadn’t told them to use any evidence. The instructions were simply to come up with the opposing warrants.

I started to get frustrated in the middle of the exercise when I saw that an entire team had their phones out. I was prepared to ‘call them out’ when I went over and saw why they had all turned their heads down to their screens – they had pulled up scholarly articles about the constitutionality of term limits! Without being directed, they had taken it upon themselves to verify their warrants with evidence and research. I was thrilled! After their evidence-backed discussion, several of them were excited to say that they had changed their minds on whether they support or don’t support congressional term limits. When I explained to them that our discussion wasn’t just about those term limits, and that it was more broadly about the responsibilities of government and the responsibilities of voters, they were engaged and focused. It turns out that learning is universally exciting.

The class is now deep into the preparation stage for our own debates – we’ll be doing them Lincoln-Douglas style. Our clients have learned the best way to research a topic, what an authoritative source of evidence is, how to mark up a text, and although I wish we had more time on it, how to research our opponent’s side so we can best refute it – seeking first to understand. The next blog will cover research day and the actual debates, with the addition of a wrap-up for our first cohort. For now, I am happy to say that progress is consistent and positive, and I’m still sure of the importance of what we’re doing.