A view from Glen Hill: Great debating

I’ve been making occasional forays into Middlebrook School while I’ve been on semester break from teaching. My mission has been to observe the preparation work of our eighth graders in the outstanding debate program for all eighth-grade students conducted by Middlebrook’s Social Studies Department under the leadership of educators Andy Cloutier, Marni Kiernan, and Tim Ley, and then to watch a few of the actual debates. I co-teach almost 30 of these eighth graders in our church’s confirmation program, and it’s fun to encounter them in this very different setting! As I observed prep work of four-person teams, I was impressed with the range and quality of their research. The students’ charge was, first and foremost — as their teachers explained and the students in turn reiterated to me — to link their arguments to constitutional principles. And they did so with clear and careful thinking and analysis both as to the applicable constitutional principles, including court interpretations of them, and as to the factual support for the arguments they were crafting based on those principles. Along with their arguments, they also prepared focused questions to be posed to and answered by their opposition during debate. Topics for the debates are highly current and include the following: whether Snowden committed treason in making his leaks of U.S. government documents to Wiki; whether Colorado’s Proposition 64 legalizing both the use and (limited) cultivation of marijuana is constitutional; whether new voter-identification requirements are constitutional; and what the scope of privacy rights for public school students should be. The constitutional principles addressed covered a very broad range, and these eighth graders’ linkage of those principles with the facts they assembled was as nuanced as it was comprehensive. So I heard discussed everything from the details of the material Snowden disclosed to pricing trends for marijuana in a decriminalized setting. There is nothing like a competition to inspire students’ focus and engagement, especially when that competition culminates in debates before dozens of one’s peers! Yet undertaking a real-time interactive program of this sort places heavy demands on our educators as they guide 369 students through 46 debates with attendant preparation work and then judge the results, offering immediate and detailed feedback. They deserve great credit for creating this program and then executing it so well. The Wilton High School Debate Team joins in the process by presenting a debate before the whole eighth grade class. These very accomplished debaters are themselves graduates of this Middlebrook program. In fact, a former WHS debater, Mariel Wallace, now the vice president of the Dartmouth College Debate Team, devoted time during her semester break to advising eighth graders alongside their teachers. She herself was in one of the first classes to benefit from this program, and her brother is benefiting from it now. Our high school’s debate team has over 100 members and is one of the largest club activities at Wilton High School. Its principal form of debate is parliamentary, and its debaters are very accomplished as evidenced by the many awards they have won in competitions at both regional (including another impressive victory this past Saturday) and national levels. In parliamentary debate, two-person teams are told their debate topic for each round 20 minutes or less before the round begins and are expected to prepare their arguments with no assistance from their coaches and using as their only outside resources a dictionary and a copy of the U.S. Constitution. The advantage in this style of debate goes to those who are very well-read and well-informed generally and who have honed their skills of persuasion rigorously. We all recognize that the skills being developed by our eighth graders in Middlebrook’s Great-Debate program lay the foundation for being able later to debate in this very sophisticated and demanding way. We also recognize that these same public-speaking skills are ones that will hold their possessors in very good stead indeed in later years — whether in conference and board rooms or in classrooms and public meetings, as well as in courtrooms and legislative hearings. And we know also that with the development of these skills goes a growth in personal confidence in the ability to express oneself well in public whatever the circumstances. The rock-solid foundation for the mastery of these highly important skills is laid in this innovative and challenging Middlebrook program, as all the while these students also gain a strong knowledge of our Constitution and a first-hand appreciation of how its principles work in actual application.

Mr. Hudspeth lives on Glen Hill Road.