Submitted by Caleb Koufman
When most people imagine the extracurriculars offered at a school for students with language-based learning disabilities, such as dyslexia, debate club is usually not among them. Just like any presumptions about their disabilities, though, students where I work as a teacher proved this one wrong, too.
It is my job to encourage students to question lessons and provoke discussions in a polite and articulate nature despite whatever learning difference they may have. After persistent student requests, and a bit of uncertainty on the part of the faculty, senior faculty member Bruce Stoddard and I started a debate team as an extracurricular activity at the school.
Junior William Cassilly and sophomore Kenneth Deluze comprised the first-ever debate team at Landmark School. It was such a pleasure to witness any anxieties about debating melt during the initial speeches. Suddenly, finding their confidence, Kenny started slamming his fist onto the desk in front of him like a Manhattan courtroom lawyer as he accused the other team of conceding a point that they forgot to address, and Liam calmly and inquisitively cross-examined his opponent like a Southern legislator before making his final arguments during the final focus.
Despite what most people may think about students who inherently struggle with language, these students can be uniquely skilled at the most important aspects of debate.
They value presentation and preparation and authentically appeal to judges. With strong verbal and logical reasoning, our debaters are able to diminish the effect of their learning disabilities and present a strong and confident demeanor at the podium. Despite their challenges with reading and writing, many of our students often have an affinity for compelling public speech and the new debate club allows them to realize this.
The experience of learning how to debate requires acquiring new skills that are often outside of any student’s comfort zone. In general, most people dread public speaking. But debating also requires knowledge of how to take notes in shorthand and write persuasive cases that cite scholars, scientists, advocates, lawyers, judges, politicians, literature, and legislature. The most important part of debate, though, is the experience of confronting an intimidating challenge and succeeding. Debate is empowering to students, and we hope to watch the program grow in the future to incorporate more people with varying levels of experience.
This week we will be attending our third official debate at a competitive private school nearby. The topic is whether or not high schools, universities, and professional sports teams should ban the use of ethnic group images such as mascots and team names. There's no telling who will win or lose but the debate is sure to be inspiring, competitive, and the start of a new and exciting tradition.
Caleb Koufman is a faculty member at Landmark High School.