Students create debate club

May 23, 2009|By KATE S. ALEXANDER

HEDGESVILLE, W.Va. -- The students huddled into two groups, taking care to speak softly so the others could not hear.

"So what is our answer to their argument?" a girl asked quietly.

"There is nothing to gain from a relationship with Cuba," a boy whispered back.

Across the room, laughter rose from the other group.

"They have not done any constructive engagement at all," a boy said. "All they've done is pull out of Guantanamo Bay."

"Yeah and they say 'tens of millions of dollars,' but nothing concrete," a student to his left added. "Is that normal means?"


The emotionally charged atmosphere that sparked a heated debate between students in a Hedgesville High School history class a few months ago clearly had dissipated.

In its place now was the rigid structure and strict rules of a new debate club, where students can come after school to openly argue.

Forming the club

"Things just got out of control," said Eily Waggoner, a sophomore at Hedgesville. "We were arguing current events and it was so politically charged, I thought, why don't we do something with this?"

Sonya Shockey, a teacher of ancient world history, said Waggoner and another student approached her after class and asked to start a debate club.

"They said, 'Mrs. Shockey, Mrs. Shockey, we really want a debate club,'" she said. "I try not to squash their ideas, so I started poking around and found there really were not any high school debate clubs in West Virginia."

Shockey said she has no background or education in debate, so finding help to start the club was paramount.

"That is when I noticed that Shepherd University had a debate team," she said. "I called them and they have been so generous in helping us get started."

Joyce Webb, coach of the Shepherd University Debate and Forensics Team, said she also noticed a shocking lack of debate programs in West Virginia's high schools.

"I was able to identify only three high schools in the state that have active debate programs," she said. "There may be more, but I am not aware of any."

In January, Webb began working with her interforensics and debate students to create a program that would qualify for grant funding and easily could be taken into high schools, she said.

Webb's goal is to create a distance learning network through which Shepherd can mentor many schools across the state and organize tournaments for students.

Learning debate

Webb said it is important for students to begin developing critical, logical and analytical thinking skills as well as written and verbal skills before entering college.

High school students who have mastered these skills are more successful in their education and often receive scholarships, Webb said.

The Shepherd University Debate and Forensics Team has become a mentor to the Hedgesville High School Debate Club to help the students learn these skills, she said.

The first meeting of the club in April was extraordinary, said Bonnie Savage, a debate student at Shepherd.

Savage said 25 students attended the meeting to listen to Webb explain formal debate and to lay out how Shepherd would help develop the club at Hedgesville.

Zac Johns, a sophomore in the club, characterized the first meeting as intimidating.

"It was intimidating, all the rules and terms there are to debate," he said. "But I think everyone who signed up for this is ready for it."

While there only are a few weeks left in the school year, both Shockey and Webb said they chose to start now to get a jump on next year.

"I wanted to start now while the kids were so interested," Shockey said.

Their first debate

Despite their interest in debate, the students wanted to see a formal debate before they tried to do it themselves, Shockey said.

Three debaters from Shepherd came to the school May 13 to demonstrate the art of arguing.

"I stand resolved that the United States federal government should substantially increase constructive engagement with Cuba," said Brittany Young, captain of the Shepherd University Debate and Forensics Team.

Speaking quickly, she crammed as many words as possible into her six-minute constructive argument.

"I am amazed at how good she is," Shockey said of Young, who was named the 2009 Top Lincoln-Douglass Debater in the Collegiate Forensics Association.

Taking careful notes, Ed Rhodes, her opponent and fellow team member, drafted an outline of his negative constructive and began firing questions at Young.

Rhodes then turned to the students to give them a chance to participate.

"Now, I need your help," he said.

Huddling in groups, the students helped Young and Rhodes draft the rest of their debate.

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