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Canyons Middle School debate program grows as student interest increases

Dec 01, 2017 08:00AM ● Published by Julie Slama

Butler, Albion, Indian Hills, Midvale, Mount Jordan and Union middle schools’ novice policy debate winners celebrate after the first debate tournament of the school year. (Leslie Robinett/Canyons School District)

Hundreds of Canyons School District middle school students filled the halls and classrooms at Mt. Jordan after school one day in late October.

Some were talking as fast as they could while others scribbled notes. Yet others were found pacing or reciting in the hallways.

These students are part of the district’s middle school debate program, which gives students a chance to try their hand at either debate or speech, said Leslie Robinett, district English language arts specialist, who coordinates the program.

“This gives students a real-world application of English and language arts,” she said. “They need to form an argument, research, write, speak and listen and then tests those skills. They work individually or with one another in the competition, but ultimately, they’re part of their school team and are learning teamwork as well.”

She said these skills — critical thinking, reasoning and communication — also will translate to their classroom work as well as benefit them in the real world.

Robinett said the program has steadily grown since she received a grant five years ago to help make debate an extension of the core curriculum. The result has been six of the eight middle schools developing at least one class, with Midvale and Butler middle schools looking into the possibility of adding classes in the future.

“This means most of these students are getting class time in addition to the one hour each week after school. They’re able to learn more from returning students, mentors and coaches in addition to researching and practicing,” she said.

The interest has increased, as well. Last year, Robinett said about 250 sixth-, seventh- and eighth-grade students across the district participated. This year, the number has increased to about 375.

The students compete in four areas — policy debate, Lincoln Douglas debate, original oratory speech and extemporaneous speaking. Policy, which at this tournament had 95 entries or 190 students participate, is the area more students pursue, as many of the students get an opportunity to compete in fifth grade, she said.

While not all middle school coaches have a debate background, Robinett meets with all coaches together regularly to share ideas and talk about the season’s tournaments. 

Butler Coach Jordan Decman said this is her first year coaching debate, as it is her assistant’s, Connor Armstrong. She has 25 students who meet once each week after school for one hour.

“I’m naturally a competitive person, but my goal is for these students to learn and have fun,” she said. “I have the veterans — the returning students — to help mentor the newer students and me as well. It’s giving some of our eighth-graders the chance to be leaders and to take pride in what they’re doing.”

She said that this year her newcomers will learn from their mistakes and persevere.

“Whether we win awards or not, we’re showing tenacity, resilience and integrity. These students are learning teamwork, how to listen to each other, how to be a good sport and how to be a really good friend. These are life skills that they can take and use past debate tournaments,” she said.

The next tournaments are Jan. 11, 2018 and March 15, 2018, which will extend invitations to schools outside the district. The season will continue through the district and state tournaments in April.

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