Students find their voices through speech and debate

By David Yastremski

During a normal year, one could stop on a Saturday at a random high school in New Jersey to find hundreds of students and judges convening to compete in speech and debate tournaments. As you enter the school, you would find masses of students congregated in cafeterias and auditoriums, sitting along the hallways, talking with their coaches, warming up their vocals, memorizing their speeches and awaiting the next round.

Every year, member schools of the New Jersey Speech and Debate League (NJSDL) sponsor daylong competitive events in speech, debate and dramatic activities for middle school and high school teams. For the competitions, students write and prepare speeches, memorize and rehearse dramatic scenes, and research and prepare debate evidence, which they use week to week at the meets. In addition, students also compete at various tournaments held by colleges and universities that attract a much larger, national draw of teams.

Typically, the season starts in October and culminates with the NJSDL State Championship and National Speech and Debate Association (NSDA) national qualifier tournament at the end of March. As with many activities, the season was near its closure when the state shut down in March of 2020. While we would have loved to immediately move our state championships and national qualifier to an online format, we just weren’t ready to do that. The state moved to an application process where individual students applied for the national championship events. Fifty-eight students represented Team New Jersey at the first all-virtual national championships.

Over the summer coaches from across the state met, determined to continue the program for our students. Interscholastic speech and debate is an activity that embraces inclusivity, celebrates student voice, and challenges our students on topics that continue to shake our world.

We knew that students were going to lose many of their extracurricular offerings, especially in the arts, if schools or state policy kept students from meeting together in person. We knew speech and debate must remain an opportunity for the students.

Through an online platform designed by the NSDA, the NJSDL events were ready to begin their season in October of 2020. Phillipsburg High School has long been the season opener for the league, so on Oct. 31, the league hosted its first online tournament, hosting 239 students and 100 judges.

Phillipsburg coach and social studies teacher, Laurie Schmid, commented that while some things were different, much stayed the same.

“I had an amazing group of colleagues whose assistance and technical expertise ensured the day ran smoothly, and I was just as exhausted by the tournament’s conclusion!” Schmid said. “It was really cool popping into virtual rooms and seeing the students competing, and finding virtual judges was so much easier than finding live ones! But at the same time, I missed having my team there to help run the tournament. I missed experiencing the excitement when finals were posted in the cafeteria, and I really missed seeing the thrill on students’ and coaches’ faces as they were handed their trophies.”

Prior to Phillipsburg, some league schools competed in tournaments sponsored by several universities during September and early October, including Yale University and Duke University, which helped local coaches figure out debate in a virtual format. Working with those tournaments prior to New Jersey events ensured a smooth implementation for New Jersey events.

Since that first tournament in October, the NJSDL has offered several events each month.  Coupled with other leagues and university tournaments, the students had tournament opportunities every weekend. As the year progressed, more schools got involved, competing not only from New Jersey, but from New York, Pennsylvania, and the mid-Atlantic. By January, some New Jersey tournaments featured over 50 teams with over 600 entries and almost 300 judges.

Maria Papera of Montville Township High School

Boarding the virtual bus

During the New Jersey virtual tournament, students typically competed in secured virtual meeting rooms for three or four preliminary rounds. The top scoring students advanced into the elimination rounds based upon the size of the event.

For the local events, students needed to be available in their rooms for four to six rounds, each lasting 60 to 90 minutes. It’s an all-day affair not only for students, but for judges and coaches. And for some of the large university tournaments, students, judges and coaches follow that schedule for two or three days. It’s a family commitment because while the student is participating, family members need to reduce the bandwidth draw that can interfere with the student’s performance or can cause lagging or even drop-offs during the students’ performances.

The virtual tournament experience has forced students to expand their troubleshooting and adaptation skill sets in the competition experience. Millburn High School senior Sophia Wang comments on how the online experience has proven valuable in expanding her skills.

“We’ve all learned to adapt this year to a completely new competitive environment,” Wang said. “Facing an unimaginable situation, I learned to persevere, to find a solution like I’d done so many times when addressing a societal injustice within my world of speech and debate.”

“It is certainly a relief to avoid the 6 a.m. roll calls and the feet squeezed into high heels,” Wang added. “But overcoming the disconnect—technologically and emotionally—from the transition to online, is no small feat.”

One of the biggest hurdles was lagging internet and bandwidth issues. Many times, it was not even the student or judge’s technology, rather it was the area where they live. Saturdays and Sundays tend to feature a lot of gaming, binge-watching and other draws on bandwidth. Early on, we found out that 4 p.m. became a witching hour of internet troubles. Since then, we’ve learned to make some adjustments and our students and judges have figured it out (i.e., what area of the house has the best signal, what devices work best, etc.).

Contrary to the advice of our internet service providers, it’s not as easy as restarting the modem. Some students and judges suddenly needed to switch to phone apps or find other avenues to wireless when their own network failed them. We’ve had judges whose only option for wireless was to judge their rounds from their public library parking lot. Our debate community has become very resourceful at getting the technology to work.

While some New Jersey schools have allowed their students and coaches to use school space on the weekends, many students have been relegated to their homes for competition, which raised some concerns for students and raised problems for some of the teams. While a few schools have been able to procure hotel or other community spaces for their students to compete, others were not so fortunate. At the height of positive COVID rates in some of our communities, some teams were not able to compete because students could not get a viable environment to compete all day.

Last year, the NJSDL formed an equity committee whose goal was initially to ensure that all students, judges, and coaches had a safe, fair, and equal-opportunity space to succeed. Ridgewood teacher, Kathleen Clarke-Anderson discussed the importance of students, coaches, and judges to be informed on issues of equity, discrimination, and inclusion, but the virtual competition experience created other reasons to assist league students.

“Our biggest issue was helping a team find the ability to participate in tournaments as the school was not open for in-person instruction and some students did not have Wi-Fi at home,” Clark-Anderson said. “Once sports were allowed to use the space, we found the speech and debate students could also. It didn’t happen as soon as we would have liked, but the students were able to start competing in January.”

One other hurdle with live synchronous events is a constant question of time zones. Participants have included schools across the four United States time zones, but some students and judges have been participating from international sites. Many times, if a student or judge didn’t show up in the virtual space, we first checked from which state they were competing. While our New Jersey teams are ready to go for a 9 a.m. round, students and judges who are attending from schools in the Pacific time zone may not be ready for their 6 a.m. call.

Hunterdon-Central Regional High School coach Adam Leonard embraces the access that the virtual tournament experience provided our schools and students.

“To me, the major selling point of participating this year is that the students derive all of the benefits of competing against students from across the country that they wouldn’t normally see in person without the hassle of making travel arrangements, missing school, and paying extraordinary amounts of money to participate in the tournament,” Leonard said. “This is an activity that tends to be exclusive, accessible to schools or families with means, but being virtual has stripped away some of those barriers.”

Layla Sayed of Elizabeth High School.

Asynchronous events

Asynchronous events emerged as another way to provide opportunities for student competition. Tournaments are offered across the country where all students need to do is supply a video recording of their presentations. Then judges view and score the videos on their own time as long as they complete it by a deadline. Judges can score their rounds at 3 p.m. or 3 a.m.; whatever works for their schedule. While this doesn’t work with the debate events, tournaments have become resourceful, offering new events that are tailored to the debate students who would like to compete in these asynchronous events.

Boarding the virtual plane

The larger-scale university tournaments also responded by offering online opportunities. During the typical year, students board buses, trains and planes to attend tournaments at college campuses including the University of Pennsylvania and Yale, Princeton, Columbia, Vassar, Duke, and George Mason universities. In February, Harvard University hosted their annual tournament virtually, drawing 480 schools from 38 states and seven foreign countries including Canada, China, Dominican Republic, France, India, Singapore, and Taiwan.

Being able to travel to and compete in the classrooms of these campuses is one of the greatest draws of the activity. Coaches knew that they had a lot of work to do to encourage student participation without the excitement of getting to travel to various universities. During these weekend-long events, students were ”stuck” in their homes and competition spaces for hours on end. To keep them engaged, teams would host breakout sessions featuring games, trivia and opportunities for students to connect with one another outside the normal school day.

Ridge High School freshman, Anjali Dadlani relates the importance of the socialization.

“I love the way that they have tried to make it as authentic of an experience as possible’’ Dadlani said. “I especially love how they have included a squad room, which allowed students to socialize as they would have if they were in the same room.”

Some college- and national-level tournaments hosted online lectures by faculty in between rounds where students could listen to some of the preeminent scholars on the various debate topics. Students would never get that opportunity in a typical year. It provided a great avenue for greater insight and understanding of the information.

The struggle

But it still hasn’t been easy. Jonathan Alston, coach of Science Park High School in Newark, admits that losing the opportunity for travel really had an impact on the students’ mental well-being.

“Many of our students faced mental health pressures exacerbated by confinement,” Alston said. “Travelling provides the students an opportunity to get away from the pressures of home, allowing them to focus in ways that many could not during the pandemic. Many started working longer hours at jobs, even during the school day, to get out and away from the screens.”

Olivia Iheke, from Elizabeth High School, agrees.

“I’m not the biggest fan of online speech,” Iheke said. “I like to feed off of the energy of my audience, to be able to see their laughter. I like to know that everyone is enjoying my performance, not just the judges, but my peers as well. Not being able to see the faces of my colleagues has been a bit of a downer. However, I appreciate the easy access of rooms to get to my rounds. It’s also possible to perform in this virtual space in ways that weren’t possible before.”

Middle school too!

The virtual tournament environment allowed the league to create more opportunities for middle school students to participate in speech and debate activities. While middle school tournaments have existed for years, virtual events created more access for students across the state to participate in a greater variety of events.

Princeton Academy Coach Raymond Shay, commented that “middle school programs cannot travel as much as many high school programs. Online tournaments have enabled our students to experience more national circuit tournaments and compete in tournaments offered across the country. While we certainly look forward to returning to an in-person experience, we also recognize that some students who may not have been able to physically travel to the NSDA Nationals last year or this year, now have the opportunity.”

Angelina Yang of Ridge High School in Basking Ridge

Looking to the future

While it may be some time before schools allow their students to board planes and trains, the students and schools of the New Jersey Speech and Debate League will continue to provide opportunities to give our state’s youth a voice. The online experience has clearly presented its own set of challenges; however, it has also increased access and opportunities for many of the students!

“The league officers, coaches, parents, judges, and, most importantly, the students have worked incredibly hard to translate what is typically an exciting and energy-packed educational experience into something that still embodies those core principles even though it must be done in the virtual world,” Hunterdon Central’s Leonard said. “There is still so much that is missing for the students, but I think that we achieved true opportunities and moments of success that they will never forget.”

Elizabeth High School student Layla Syed agrees.

“Competing online has been one of the strangest experiences ever,” Syed said. “The nerves you get while competing in person are one thing but attempting to learn how manage competing through a screen became a more difficult challenge than I could have imagined. However, with the great coaches and teammates I’ve had the honor of working with this year, it became easy. I no longer saw it as an obstacle but as an amazing and unique experience.”

David Yastremski teaches public speaking at Ridge High School in Bernards Township and the president of the NJ Speech and Debate League. He is the negotiations chair for the Bernards Township Education Association and treasurer for the Somerset County Education Association. Yastremski is a part-time NJEA Communications Consultant. He can be reached at dyastremski@njea.org.

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