MFL MarMac debate team’s first season proves challenging, but rewarding

For debate tournaments, students are in teams of two, with one team arguing in favor of the resolution, or topic, while the other argues against it. In its first year, the MFL MarMac debate team had 13 students participate at some point, including the two on the left, Ayla Boylen and Coltin Ball. (Submitted photo)


By Audrey Posten, North Iowa Times Editor


As MFL MarMac’s speech adviser, Angie Killian has been interested in debate for awhile, since it has been linked with the High School Speech Association. She always thought it would be a great opportunity for students, but never seriously thought about forming a team. That is, until last year, when she taught a debate unit in one of her classes and saw it spark the interest of her students.


“It just took off. They like the idea of arguing,” she said of her students. “That interest sparked my interest.”


This year, Killian, along with Scott Boylen, formed a debate team, making MFL MarMac the first local district to do so. The first season, which recently wrapped up, saw 13 students, including three eighth graders, participate at some point or another.


While the students joined over a love of arguing, both Killian and Boylen said there is a lot more to debate.


“It’s not all about how well you can argue,” Killian explained. “It’s about how you listen too.”


Then there is the research that goes into it. The students don’t just show up at tournaments without preparation or any knowledge of the topic that is going to be debated. A month before each tournament, the students, who are split into teams of two, were given a topic or resolution. That whole month leading up to the tournament was then spent researching the resolution and preparing both pro and con statements, as the students wouldn’t know which side they would have to argue until their round began at the tournament. Boylen and Killian helped with this research.


While the students have typed opening statements and facts and information at the ready, Boylen said that ability to quickly connect the dots and “roll with the punches” was challenging, but rewarding.


“They don’t know what the contentions are going to be from the other side. Maybe they didn’t research or read about that,” Boylen said. “They’re thinking on their feet, speaking in front of people, developing salient points while hearing other arguments, then coming up with a counter-argument on the spot. That’s difficult for everyone. And it has to be evidence-based.”


And the resolutions are about heavy topics. For example, at one debate, the students had to argue whether money had to be provided for development or the military in the Sahel region of Africa. That argument then had to be presented to a judge who was a representative of the public.


“The judge could be a parent or someone who doesn’t have a clue,” Boylen said. “The argument had to be in plain language so that everyone can follow and form opinions.”


Killian and Boylen said this ability to see issues from different viewpoints is just one of the ways debate helps the students.


“It aligns with the core curriculum and they can put it on their college applications,” Killian said, mentioning that, by growing up in a world of texting, students often lose the ability to communicate well. 


“This is a huge thing as far as life school,” Boylen added. “They’ll take this wherever they go. The ability to speak to people and develop thoughts is huge.”


While both Boylen and Killian grew up playing sports, they said debate can be equally draining, but sometimes even more rewarding.


“To watch this, to me, having been in sports, it’s way different,” Boylen said of debate. “Winning a wrestling tournament never felt that way.”


“It wears you out just like a sport,” Killian added. “At the end, your brain is fried.”


However, the district’s first foray into debate competition did not come without challenges. Some students could not participate, at times, because of other extra-curricular commitments. Tournaments were held on weekends, hours away from home, forcing students to come up with money for a hotel room. 


“You can’t leave Saturday at 3 a.m. and get there at 7 a.m. and expect them to debate four rounds,” Killian said.


The school also had to provide someone who was willing to judge, which was sometimes difficult.


Then there was the competition from bigger schools, who had experienced students and budgets allowing for more research materials.


“The competition is intense. You could go into courtrooms and hear lesser arguments. They had files of info,” Boylen said of  some of their competitors.


The students also had to learn to deal with failure.


“The kids didn’t win a lot, but they didn’t feel defeated,” he continued.


Boylen and Killian said they are proud of that spirit and determination to try something new.


“They deserve publicity for trying something new,” Killian said. “You don’t know what it’s like until you try. No one’s going to badger you if you didn’t like it after one debate, if it wasn’t for you.”


Moving forward, Killian and Boylen said they hope to get more students interested in debate. They also plan to do multiple tournaments per month, so that they can present the same argument, since each month keeps the same topic, then changes the next month. They said that will be easier and less time-consuming than preparing new arguments for each new month.

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