Stories and insights on excellent education.
Success Academy Launches New Debate Program — and Starts Its Own League
Meagan Kowaleski – October 4, 2017
Picture this: You are a Success Academy debate scholar. You’ve argued sides against your classmates and even debated against other schools. But now you must stand in front of a judge to deliver your own carefully-researched policy. For the policy to succeed, you must prove that, if passed, it will uniquely benefit society. You will be asked time and again to defend your assertions with evidence that supports your claims throughout a 45-minute debate. Intimidated yet?
As the manager of Success Academy’s debate program, I am proud that we are introducing policy debate to our scholars this year — and just as proud to launch the Success Academy Debate League, which will bring students from across the city to rigorous, Success Academy-run tournaments. Previously, scholars competed in Parliamentary or Public Forum-style debates within New York City leagues, where participants argue for or against a specific proposal. We found that these tournaments were often unorganized and did not allow our scholars to receive high-level feedback on their abilities.
On September 30, the Success Academy Debate League hosted its first tournament, with 120 scholars competing across novice and advanced (or ‘open’) divisions. The students were evaluated by 56 experienced judges from New York University, SUNY Binghamton, and Rutgers University. The judges delivered actionable feedback to every scholar after each debate. Parents also spent two hours in debate training themselves, so they can understand what their scholars will face this year! The day was filled with positive competitive energy, including debate team chant battles and challenges to rival schools in the ‘war room’ where scholars prepared their arguments. I was touched when I saw parents, watching their children debate, excuse themselves from the room to cry in the hallways — they were moved to tears by their child’s abilities. Our scholars and parents demonstrated an extraordinary commitment to debate — even during the day’s lowest moment — an overflowing toilet!
Success Academy’s transition to policy debate is also designed to cultivate our middle school debaters’ creativity and innovative spirit. Competitors rigorously research diverse proposals all year to come up with the best solution to a given societal problem. The negative side must then argue, on the spot, why the affirmatives new policy is either harmful to the status quo, illogical, or introduce a better policy of their own. In a world where emotional appeal stands in for well-researched logic and reasoning, our debaters must make logical appeals resonate. This year, scholars will be debating education reform and spending.
At the heart Success Academy’s ETHOS values is the idea of ownership. It’s fitting that our scholars will advocate for solutions to problems that impact them directly and propose strategies to reform our education system. To prepare for this topic, our scholars are engaged in an extraordinary level of research on the history of education reform and federal funding during their elective classes and after school clubs. Already, they’re critically examining research papers, news articles, and existing legislation to form a policy proposal of their own. Policy debate is the most common form of debate among colleges and we know our debaters will depart our program with the skills they need to become competitive collegiate debaters and well-informed citizens.
This year, more scholars are benefitting from our debate program than ever. For the first time, we’re offering debate to about 500 scholars at all of Success Academy middle schools. Ten new debate coaches started this year and are bringing new energy and incredible backgrounds to our program. Already, our scholars are making huge strides under their guidance.
Below, you’ll hear from some of our newest debate coaches, who will share their own story with debate and why they’re excited for the coming year of policy debate!
Debate Coach, SA Myrtle MS
“I started debating during the Obama campaign in 2008. I was in 11th grade at the time and lived in Baltimore. At the time, I wanted to be a lawyer, so I figured — why not join the debate team? I debated in college at Towson University and won at the prestigious Cross Examination Debate Association National Tournament. When I found out about Success Academy after college, I was so happy that I could teach policy debate professionally. When I was in high school, debate was where I became engaged in my education. But at SA, engagement is everywhere. I assisted with a math class recently and my mind was blown. There are students raising their hands to talk about math! They have a proof, and they want to justify their proof, or in science — their observation. The wonder in students’ eyes when they start working through complex questions is incredible. During a group discussion this month, I watched a group of scholars figure out what it meant to have a fundamental right to autonomy. They’re only nine! This is just the beginning for them.”
Debate coach, SA Harlem East MS
“I grew up in Queens and started debating in high school. My mock trial teachers had founded a debate program there and they became my mentors — they encouraged me. I still keep in touch with them today! Successfully debating in high school meant I had access to scholarships from many top-tier colleges. I received a scholarship from the University of Alabama and ultimately graduated from Queens College. I want my scholars to understand that they have people in their lives who care about them. That’s my foundation for why I was successful. I had mentors who appreciated my skills, and I will do the same for my mentees. I realized that I had a voice and I want my students to realize they have a voice. This is especially important for black and brown students. This year, they’re doing policy debate, which is the most rigorous form of debate they do — each topic requires truly master’s-level research. I know they will find their voices through policy debate.”
Debate coach, SA Harlem West MS
“I grew up in Washington D.C., but moved to Texas in middle school, where I started to debate. I immediately loved it. Debate was an outlet for me to express myself and discuss current events. I was the first person in my family to go to college. I went to Liberty University and debated there — I did policy debate throughout my whole debate career. My debate coach in college, Benjamin Hagwood, was my mentor. I want to be a mentor for my students as well. I hope to be a resource for them about everything from their home life to debate scholarships. There’s so much that policy debate teaches students — I love that students are free to express and defend their opinions, no matter what they are. The benefits of debate, and policy debate in particular, are far-reaching. You get to network with talented students and coaches across the country. Students develop amazing research habits. I know debate can unlock incredible opportunities for my scholars.”
Debate Coach, SA Midtown West MS
“I was born in Russia and didn’t speak English until I was about ten. I attended a school in Florida where I was really encouraged to participate and share my opinions, partly as a way for me to absorb the English language. When I arrived for college at New York University, I immediately joined the debate team. As a debate coach at SA, I want to bring out a high level of questioning in my scholars; I want to flip the classroom around student engagement. I held a class discussion about President Trump’s repeal of DACA in all three of my classes recently. I posed questions, then had them discuss them, and probe one another on both sides of the issue. The great part about debate is that it helps students connect to the curriculum in a way that’s relevant. Debate allows them to bring up what they know about issues and put that at the center of the discussion. That critical pedagogy opens doors, sometimes in the form of scholarships. I’m very excited for policy debate — this year the topic is education funding reform, so scholars are literally living the topic they will debate. The kids are already excited to talk about how charter schools fit into the topic. It’s going to be amazing.”