Say What? Meet the walking, talking argument for Denver's Urban Debate League

That's why Urban Debate Leagues focus on policy debate, regarded as the most difficult and intimidating type of competitive debate. Policy debate has a culture and a lingo all its own. And since time is of the essence during a debate round, everything is abbreviated, sometimes with only one letter. "T" stands for "topicality." There's also "aff," "neg," "cross-ex," and "heg," short for "hegemony," a key concept in debate.

In a policy debate round, there are two teams with two debaters each. One team is affirmative and the other is negative. The affirmative team, or "aff," must present evidence that supports the resolution — in this case, for example, that the U.S. should decrease its military presence in Iraq. The job of the negative team, or "neg," is to prove that doing so would be a bad idea. Over the course of a tournament, each team will argue both sides, so they must practice both negative and affirmative cases. Preparation is critical, because it's not announced which side the debaters are on until a few minutes before the round starts.

A round is made up of eight "speeches" — four affirmative and four negative. The first four can only be eight minutes long; in between, there are three minutes of "cross-examination," or "cross-ex" time, in which the opposing team asks questions of the speaker. The last four speeches are five minutes long, and there is no cross-ex between them. Each team also gets eight minutes of prep time to use throughout the round to brainstorm ideas or write their next speeches. Only one person speaks at a time. The first affirmative speaker lays out the team's plan, then the first negative speaker attacks it. The second affirmative speaker offers more evidence as to why it's good. The second negative speaker follows with evidence as to why it's not.

The evidence is what counts most. The debaters gather most of their evidence from the Internet and package it together in what are known as "cards." One card may quote several sources on why it's a good idea to pull troops out of South Korea — because it's too expensive to keep them there, or because if we stay, we could get sucked into a nuclear war with aggressive North Korea. The sources tend to be dry and wonky, not the kind of stuff high-schoolers would read in their spare time: an article by a senior fellow at the Cato Institute; a paper by a government professor at Texas A & M University; news reports by the BBC; speeches by Henry Kissinger. More advanced debaters like to frame their arguments by quoting philosophers such as Michel Foucault.

Every round lasts an hour or two, and the winner is decided by a judge who weighs both sides' evidence, evaluates the way it was presented and subjectively chooses whichever team made the best case. The overall winner of the tournament is decided by elimination. Each team of two students debates at least five rounds. The four teams with the best scores go on to the semi-finals, an accomplishment known as "breaking." The winners of those rounds then debate each other to determine the first-place team.

"People think they can walk in off the street and say, 'I can watch a debate, I can judge a debate,' and that's not quite true," says Munn. "There's a significant learning curve. That first year, no coaches had any policy debate experience and no kids did. A lot of it was getting kids and coaches to have positive experiences early on and to see the potential."

That was true of Smith. A civil-rights-minded thirty-year-old who grew up in rural North Carolina, he came to teaching by way of AmeriCorps, where he discovered a knack for connecting with teenagers while working at a youth sports program. He was hired at Manual in 2008, his first teaching job, and was tapped by the then-principal to coach the debate team. "It totally fulfills my mission as an educator," Smith says, "and that's to create critically thinking, productive members of our society." But, he admits, he was clueless as to the details. "I didn't know anything about debate."

He started by looking for students who liked to argue. "The biggest thing that my kids responded to was the fact that an adult would have to listen to them for an hour and a half, for a whole round," Smith says. He ended up with about fifteen students. Manual was one of six schools in the league that year, and although the team as a whole won the inaugural DUDL tournament, they lost every subsequent tournament. A duo from West High took first place and traveled to the national championship in Chicago.

Since then, the league has grown to include ten schools and about 150 students. But it's always hunting for more.

Which is why Smith gathered this group together in the Manual library last August. And despite debate's nerdy stereotype, Manual's team has credibility. Trophies are abundant in debate — there are awards for the top eight two-person teams at each tournament, in addition to medals for speaking style and judges' choice — and Manual has an entire glass case in the foyer devoted to the debate team's gold. "It's probably been the most successful extracurricular activity we've had here," says Manual principal Joe Sandoval. Plus, several boys confess, debate is a good way to meet girls.

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3 comments
Gsluvs4me
Gsluvs4me

Manual began a journey to transformation under Rob Stein and the school is still in the process of proving that our public schools are worth saving not shutting. Go T-Boltz! I wish that Rob Stein had been able to complete this Journey with Manual High School. Thank You for coming back for 3 years to your old High School we wish you well.

chc
chc

Okay, another comment besides the geography lesson---it is a shame that so many people in northeast Denver are choicing out instead of fighting to make the schools in our neighborhood more rigorous. what happened to Theron when he experienced a whole grop of kids smarter than he was--he made himself get smarter. Many families have walked away from schools just because there are minorities or lower economic classes in them. Neighborhood public schools NEED students at ALL academic and socio-economic levels for most to gain.

Another great thing about Manual---SMALL class sizes . . . with lots of adult volunteers from the neighborhood to provide tutoring, mentoring and one-on-one classroom attention. And the teachers are an amazing team of educators!

Too many people still consider Manual what it was like when it was shut down. It has become (again) a safe, productive place for students to flourish in high school.

chc
chc

Manual High School is NOT in Five Points. It is in the (much tamer-sounding) Whittier neighborhood. I know Five Points sound lots tougher, more urban, but it is NOT correct!

For future reference, Whittier's boundaries are: 23rd Ave. on the south, Martin Luther King Blvd. on the north, York St. on the east and Downing St. on the west.

 
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