Daring to debate

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Max Koeller, Miqenzie Gilberts, Sam Koeller and Joe Dodgen competed on the MFL MarMac debate team this fall. (Photo by Audrey Posten)

MFL MarMac students gain confidence and speaking skills through program

By Audrey Posten, North Iowa Times

Should the United States agree to the United Nations Convention of the Law of the Sea?

“Most of the world follows it when it comes to sea mining or navigation of the sea,” explained Max Koeller. “We kind of follow the rules, but haven’t actually agreed. The U.S. is one of the very few countries who isn’t part of it.”

The intricacies of this particular topic aren’t often common knowledge among the general population, let alone a high school junior, but among Max and his fellow MFL MarMac students, junior Miqenzie Gilberts and seniors Sam Koeller and Joe Dodgen, you’ll find great depths of information. Ask them to pick a side, and they’ll flip you for it. Whether the answer is “yes” or “no,” they can defend either one.

The four are part of the small but mighty MFL MarMac debate program that, each fall for the past five years, has challenged students from around the country over a variety of thought-provoking issues—everything from Korean ballistic missiles to background checks on gun purchases and probable cause for search and seizures.

“Some are more relevant than others,” admitted Joe. “But it’s definitely beneficial to learn more about all these issues.”

The questions are posed by the National Speech and Debate Association, with a new topic issued nearly every month. When the MFL MarMac students competed in a tournament at West Des Moines Valley High School in September, the UN question was the issue of choice.

“That’s a topic we don’t know a lot about, so we had to do a lot of research beforehand,” Sam noted.

With the help of debate coach Angie Killian, the four (Sam and Joe on one team and Max and Miqenzie on the other) got to work outside school hours, Googling news articles, watching videos and reading topic briefs. They looked at the opinions of former elected officials, as well as environmental advocacy organizations. A big part was simply reading the agreement itself, to know what it contained.

Using the points they thought were best, the teams then carefully crafted their arguments.

“I let them take the lead,” Killian said. “Typically, the kids who are involved in debate are up on current issues and are naturally opinionated.”

The key is backing up those opinions with evidence. 

“You can say you know this or you know that, but you have to have the evidence to back it up, to make it sound like you’re more credible and know what you’re talking about,” Killian added.

“You can’t just put a bunch of mumbo-jumbo in there and call it a day,” Miqenzie explained. “It’s kind of like essay writing.”

Joe said it’s also important to find counter-arguments against their own points.

“Then, if the other team were to bring it up, we could counter those points,” Joe said. “It’s important we know both sides of the argument because we don’t choose which side we are.”

The September tournament in Des Moines included six rounds. The teams don’t know which side they’ll argue for, or who will go first, until a coin is flipped at the start of each round. Then it’s around a half-hour of public forum-style, back-and-forth debate—stating your case, listening, questioning, refuting.

“The kids who have done it for more than a couple years, they’re more familiar with it and more comfortable about going into these tournaments,” Killian said. “They know what the expectations are and enjoy the challenge of trying to outwit their competition and winning a round or, even on a smaller scale, making a point that shuts down the competition.”

Once the students begin debating, Killian cannot advise them. If she’s not judging elsewhere, she listens in the audience, taking notes.

“It’s definitely intimidating,” said Sam of speaking in front of judges and facing off against teams that are mostly from much larger, urban schools. Some private school teams even flew in from as far away as California and Texas. Many have the advantage of honing their skills in actual classes, rather than an extra-curricular activity that meets after school.

But like with anything, experience helps.

“I started debate back in eighth grade and I did not do very well,” Joe shared, “but I’ve learned a lot and it’s raised my confidence level for doing public speaking and conveying arguments.”

 Sam said he’s improved at speaking without a lot of time to prepare. Brother Max agreed.

“If they ask you a question, even if you don’t know the answer, you have to respond,” Max said. “Sometimes I would find myself looking at our research document just looking up key words, trying to find something to say. Improvisational speaking is a huge part of our lives, so debate helps that.”

Through debate, Max said he’s also learned to speak more articulately, while Miqenzie said she’s bettered her writing skills.

“They can’t speak too fast, which a lot of the competitors do. You need to have eye contact with your judge so you’re more convincing,” said Killian. “You learn good communication skills and the confidence to advocate for your opinion. You will need to have these skills going into the real world.”

One of the skills that’s often overlooked, said Sam, is learning how to argue respectfully.

“You have to argue with control and there has to be a certain level of maturity,” he remarked. “I think that’s really important for kids now.”

A failure to do so actually hinders the team’s chance of winning the round.

“In debate, you get points for being nice and professional,” Miqenzie explained. “You can’t just go in there and be like ‘you’re wrong’ and start screaming at them and insulting them. Even though their points may not be right to you, there’s a better way of going at it. You have to use what you know to disprove what they say. Prove them wrong in a logical way.”

“You have to know how to be respectful but still competitive,” Max added. “It’s a weird scenario.”

The students like that debate forces them to understand both sides of an issue—something they feel is missing not just in political discourse, but society in general.

“In debate team, we argue both sides of the subject, and we have to learn about both sides, so it fosters this level of understanding with people who might disagree with you,” Joe stated. “It helps you respect them more because you learn where they’re coming from and why they believe what they believe.”

That component has helped her mature as a person, Miqenzie quipped.

“When I first started, I would be so biased and not see anyone else’s opinion,” she said. “Now, you see that some of their points are right.”

Killian said the September tournament will likely be the only competition of the season for her students. Busy schedules often limit the amount of time students can devote to debate. Since MFL MarMac is the only area school with a program, participants are also forced to travel long distances to tournaments. That, paired with the cost of travel and staying at hotels, is a deterrent, she said.

But she plans to continue the program and hopes interest will grow.

“It’s a really great thing to advertise for our school,” she said. “It really sets us apart.”

The participants, said Miqenzie, are like a close-knit family. They enjoy working and learning together, traveling and meeting new people.

“A lot of people don’t go out for it because it’s a lot of work, but I’m in a million other things and I still do debate,” she said. “It’s educational, but fun.”

She and Max advocate that debate as it’s depicted in TV shows or movies isn’t necessarily realistic.

“I don’t want there to be any stigma about it,” Max said. “You don’t have to necessarily be super good at memorization. You just have to be willing to research and willing to learn.”

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