on habits and putting oneself in students’ shoes

I heard on a TED talk recently that if people write one happy thing that happened to them each day, then they start to get into a happier mindset, similarly to regular exercise making them physically stronger. I have been saying “I’ll post more on my blog in the summer because I’ll have so much free time!” yet haven’t followed up on it. I haven’t built up my blogging mindset at all. I’ve been thinking that a post should be extremely detailed, full of pictures, and full of links in order to be considered “real.” However, I should build consistency with smaller posts, much like I’m trying to build consistency with shorter runs as I start to train for a November half marathon.

So here goes. Last week I participated in debate coach class to get ready for my second season of coaching. Because I was the only coach from my school there, I opted to attend the Varsity/Championship section to familiarize myself with the content and skills. Learning about topicality, kritiks, and cutting one’s own disadvantage by using original research was both fascinating and challenging. When my varsity debaters had referred to all of these things last year, I felt as if they were speaking a foreign language and tried my best to coach and encourage them in spite of not fully understanding the skills they were learning. Now I feel way more confident in coaching them, though there will definitely be the challenge of finding folks to fill the other coaching responsibilities.

The best part of the experience was participating in a mock debate round against other coaches that was judged by an experienced student debater. Having never debated in high school, I couldn’t identify with my debaters as much as I could with the runners whom I coach in the school’s running club. Even if my runners are much faster than I am, I still know the pre-race routine of bib + timing chip + bag check + warmup. I still know what it feels like to struggle through a race on a really hot or really cold day. I still know what it feels like to sprint like a crazy person if the finish line clock shows a chance of getting a PR. With debate, I could watch the rounds all I wanted but never felt the true experience of forming arguments on the fly and and carefully coordinating with a debate partner. At the camp, I chose to go varsity in spite of my nervousness about even debating at all. I figured it was a safe space to practice and that the mistakes I made would be good opportunities to learn from and help me figure out how to encourage reluctant debaters.

I partnered with a fellow coach who hadn’t debated either, and we chose to run an affirmative case that argued for lifting the Cuban embargo in order to increase economic engagement. I sneakily called the 1AC (first affirmative constructive argument) because that speech is pre-written–you just read cards for inherency (status quo), harms (what is bad about the status quo), plan (that we should lift the embargo), and solvency (how the plan will solve the harms). The only other things I would have to do were cross-examination and the 1AR (first affirmative rebuttal). I’ve heard that giving English language learners the 1AC is a good scaffolding strategy to help them build confidence and skills, and now I can see why. Giving the 1AC was harder than I thought though–I read slowly at first because I worried about having leftover time, but ended up not finishing two add-on cards that I thought would easily fit into the allotted time. The student judge (who was so gracious) also told me to clearly delineate the transitions between cards. I thought I had paused and changed the inflection of my voice enough, but effective speaking definitely takes more practice than…none at all. I was also very grateful to my opponents for not getting overly aggressive in cross-examination. I’ve seen student debaters go for the jugular in cross-ex and thought that I would never want to get in that situation.

The really tough part came when during the 1NC (first negative constructive), in which our opponents brought topicality, framework and kritik arguments. Those took the debate to a much more metacognitive, philosophical level which I could not handle. I feel that I can speak on the fly with topics with which I have subject matter expertise (math, education, educational technology, running), but definitely not with neoliberalism! Trying to help my partner find the cards to answer these arguments was also extremely difficult…and only the start of us floundering through the 2AC (second affirmative constructive), and our affirmative rebuttals (1AR and 2AR). Being so out of my league with the content and discourse, I grasped at so many straws to fill up my five minute rebuttal…though it was a bit hard to respond to a 2NC (second negative constructive) that included a Kipling poem rather than more evidence. That speaker was a first-year coach so he’d never seen a debate round before 🙂

I realized after the round how getting one’s behind kicked in a debate round would be excellent motivation to study evidence, practice reading, and understand strategy. I’d heard this from other coaches before but thought that it would only discourage the students. After the debating experience, I almost wished I could pull a Drew Barrymore in Never Been Kissed and pretend to be an undercover reporter masquerading as a high school debater (though there probably would not be any debate scandals to report on). I also feel a TON of empathy for students in their first debate with a new topic, for trying to pull evidence and quickly organize an argument is way more difficult than it looks.


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