Mary Russell is an (almost) life-long participant in the world of speech and debate. After competing in the “junior” homeschool speaking league, she began debating at the age of 12 and had a successful career in Team Policy, Lincoln Douglas, and Parliamentary Debate. After graduating high school, Mary earned a B.A in English and an M.A. in Teaching and Instruction from Columbia College. For the last six years, Mary has coached STOA debaters at all levels of experience, while also serving as the Program Director/Traveling Coach for American Logos, an international debate team. Mary loves working with new debaters and seeing the progression of confidence-building and skill development that occurs when students find their voice.
I thought about giving this post the following headline: “Confessions of a Debate Coach who is still afraid of public speaking.” After further reflection, that title (while accurate) seemed a little long and perhaps you might stop reading and immediately pull your student out of the Speech and Debate course. Stick with me; I promise I have important information about the upcoming Speech and Debate class!
This year, True North Academy is offering Speech and Debate to students as an opportunity to hone their critical thinking abilities. Students will also be building extremely practical skills like public speaking, researching, peer review, and writing. If that sounds like a noble goal, it is one; but it’s a goal that we will accomplish as a team, learning and working together this semester.
I began my journey through the crazy world of speech and debate at the very young age of seven years old. I thought I was the most intelligent 1st grader that had ever lived and was quite proud of my ribbons that I earned for a speech about hypnotizing bunnies. (Somehow I convinced them to let me bring a live animal into the building). My older siblings were competing, and I was enthralled with the idea of someone, anyone, everyone, listening to me. Make no mistake; I was also terrified of the idea. Perpetually shy, and absolutely appalled when anyone spoke to me, public speaking training was exactly what I needed. Fast forward a few years, and I started in “the big kid league,” competing in both speech and debate events. The shyness remained, and that roller-coaster-stomach-drop came back every time it was my turn to speak. However, I gained confidence in the knowledge that I would be able, every single time, to stand up and speak my thoughts without fainting, puking, or running out of the building screaming.
Speech and Debate was the single most important thing I did in high school.
That’s a big claim to make. More important than Algebra? Really? Yes.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for the Big Four (Math, Science, History, English), but if you ask me what shaped me as a learner, what helped me prepare for college, or what gave me the skills to be a successful young professional, my answer will always and firmly be Speech and Debate.
Debate provides an unparallelled format that requires people to think and research issues from both sides and then have a structured conversation. It necessitates a high level of critical thinking, an ability to evaluate an idea, and, perhaps most importantly, listening skills. It’s impossible to be successful in debate unless one learns to listen closely and carefully to an opponent’s arguments. Regular practice in critical listening provides the foundation for deep thought and educated decision-making.
From a public-speaking perspective, the benefits are probably more obvious. As I said above, I make no promises that I have a cure for nervous butterflies. The goal with this class will make the fear of public speaking fade into something manageable while also giving students the confidence to find their voice and speak out.
Speech and Debate will be a fun, supportive, and challenging class that will give students the opportunity to develop their speaking skills, train their minds to think critically and deeply, and prepare for college and/or their future careers.
(You can sign up for Speech and Debate, taught by Mary Russell, at True North Homeschool Academy.)