The Art of Debate

How do you win an argument? Find a member of Chapin’s Upper School Debate Team and they’ll be able to provide you with a proper, succinct answer!

Forty-five students from Classes 8-12 spend countless afternoons pondering this age-old question – just as students before them did after the first “debating society” was formed at Chapin in 1947.

Upper School students work with teachers Emily Feder (US English and History teacher) and Elizabeth Adler (US Music teacher) to learn persuasive language, practice delivery skills and study specific tools to hone their logic in order to prepare and present convincing arguments. Students can then compete in local and/or national-level tournaments throughout the year. (This year, all are virtual.)

To begin, students research current events impartially as possible, make a claim, and then create ‘cases’ to explain why these events matter. The ideas, which are intended to be accessible to the average person, are then communicated in Public Forum – a team debate format with a side arguing for or against a position.

“It’s important to acknowledge both sides of the argument,” Ms. Feder explained, which can be difficult when taking a specific stance. “This is called Weighing,” she continued, noting that it’s more complicated than a ‘yes or no’ dispute. “You’re arguing that your side should win because the things you are advocating for are more important or have a greater impact on people in the world.”

It is important to these teachers that their students understand that the art of debate is much more complex than simply arguing. Every point is carefully constructed and much thought is put into how it’s delivered. Students spend copious amounts of time fine-tuning their cases and rebuttals and planning for unknowns.

Debate preparation includes intensive background research (definitions, history, breaking news), critical examination, and the assembling of ‘cards,’ also known as evidence. Students must consider the outcome of their topic by predicting future possibilities along with the opposing teams’ arguments. They listen intently, take meticulous notes and maintain composed body language – all while attempting to present their material in under four minutes in each round and with the added challenge of remembering to speak slowly, clearly and confidently.

The team’s course description states, “Our work in the art of rhetoric and improvisation covers skills and techniques that people have used from ancient Greece to the present day, in contexts from the Senate to family discussions.”

While Debate is rigorous, it’s also a lot of fun! Students’ joy was on clear display during a recent practice round where new debaters watched four varsity-level members debate whether crypto currency should be government regulated.

Debate is often erroneously thought of as confrontational. Here, students offered each other helpful suggestions and tips after the round had ended and gave their younger audience members an opportunity to ask questions and dissect the strategies they observed. Chapin’s Debate Team captains also provided their insight and encouragement to the group.

Participating in debate offers many benefits, such as teamwork and collaboration skills, enhanced retention, critical thinking and public speaking practice. As such, Chapin has deepened its commitment to both enhancing its debate program and bringing public speaking to Lower, Middle and Upper Schools and has hired Jim Shapiro – a long-time speech and debate coach and educator – to build upon the initiative and existing excitement. (Currently, students in Kindergarten through Class 4 can get a taste through “Debate Jr.” – a workshop offered during Clubhouse, Chapin’s after-school program.)

We look forward to seeing all that our scholars accomplish in Debate this year and beyond!