The COVID-19 pandemic hasn’t stopped two local high school forensic teams from attaining top tournament rankings.
Recently, Fox Chapel Area High School students Patrick Alexander and Silas Owens placed in the Dalmasse Sterner Steel City Invitational Speech and Debate Tournament. Alexander, placing fourth in the student congress category, and Owens, placing second in varsity Lincoln-Douglas debate, earned single bids for the Pennsylvania High School Speech League State Championship Tournament. In order to compete at the March 2021 tournament, the students each must acquire two additional bids from future events.
“They're both really great young men and very smart and interested. They pick up on topics and issues very quickly, and they're insightful. I can't speak highly enough about them,” said Fox Chapel Area coach and teacher Mark Matusiak.
North Allegheny speech and debate team president Arjun Narayan, 17, has earned enough bids to compete at the Pennsylvania High School Speech League State Championship Tournament, where he will return as defending champion in his category. The National Speech & Debate Association (NSDA) in 2019 awarded North Allegheny Senior High School’s speech and debate team its Leading Chapter Award and added the team to its Top 100 Schools List.
“There's a history of excellence,” said North Allegheny Coach Sharon Volpe. “I don't coach anymore; I consider myself the ringmaster. My job is teaching math, but I spend time doing administrative work for the team. Our older kids are the ones who do all the coaching of the younger kids, and our older kids take such great pride in our team doing well. It’s just incredible.”
Students may compete in various forensics categories including drama, cross-examination, public forum, Lincoln-Douglas, student congress, oral interpretation of poetry or prose, dramatic or humorous interpretation, and informative, persuasive or extemporaneous speaking. Depending upon their categories, students may have all year to research and practice their topics, or they may only learn their topics on tournament day. They compete alone or on teams, based on their divisions.
Lincoln-Douglas entails students debating for 35 minutes about values and philosophies, with judges honoring the most persuasive student. The January and February Lincoln-Douglas topic is whether states should ban lethal autonomous weapons. Debaters must prepare to speak about both sides of the argument because the judge can assign them either the affirmative or negative argument.
According to Matusiak, student congress is similar to how a legislative body debates and discusses and votes on issues.
“I enjoy finding screwball arguments to different topics that I can bring up in front of the crowd and deflect,” said Alexander, 16, who adds that he always competes in student congress. “Sometimes there’s a really great point for an issue that no one talks about, whereas in congress you're encouraged to talk about it.”
Duos facing off in public forum debate are currently discussing if the United States should adopt a declaratory nuclear policy of no first use.
Narayan has participated in this fast-paced category since seventh grade. “It's really fun working with someone else to create the best presentation for the judges. Another aspect of public forum I really like is the current events aspect. The topics are always evolving with every single day…it really keeps us on our toes to make sure we know the most about the topic.”
Volpe witnesses students’ speaking abilities improve over time. “In the beginning when they come in, they have no knowledge of current events. They hear a few things from their parents’ kitchen table, but they don't know anything in depth. And by the time they leave, when they're seniors, these kids are smarter than most adults,” she said.
According to Matusiak, judges evaluate debaters on their communication skills; abilities to present coherent, logical, consistent arguments using evidence to support the arguments; the positions they pose; and their abilities to refute their opponents.
Dedication contributes to students’ success. Practices and competitions are now being held virtually due to COVID-19, which is disappointing to Matusiak, who feels that the pandemic is diminishing the camaraderie among teams.
“Part of it was the fun of going to a tournament and between rounds, when people could sit down at a table in the cafeteria and talk about what happened in your round; there was a lot of interaction,” he said.
Nonetheless, it is easier for students to compete virtually in tournaments throughout North America from the comfort of their homes.
“It was a little different, but it still felt like it was real,” said Alexander. “Sometimes Wi-Fi issues would come up, which would remind you, ‘Oh, hey, this is virtual.’”
Still, Narayan, a senior, is grateful for the activity. As president, he has gained an appreciation of teamwork, as well as honed organizational skills by planning team activities and managing tournaments.
“Through speech and debate, we get to develop our public speaking voice; how we want to kind of lay out our ideas,” he added. “I think that's a great skill to use, especially as we get older.”