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Payton’s Novice Debate Team Learns and Succeeds

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By Will Foster ’20

Walter Payton’s novice debate team has learned the ropes from the varsity members and even found some success of their own this year.

With March’s state tournament approaching, they’ve been honing their craft — and having plenty of fun along the way.

At two recent practices during enrichment, several novices spoke to the Paw Print.

“Once you get to know it, debate becomes so much fun,” said Cameron Kuberski ‘20. “I went to the first tournament not knowing what I was doing and saying random stuff. Now I’m making evidence-based arguments.”

“Debate fosters skills important to be successful in school, but also in life,” said coach Vincent Vinluan, who teaches AP US History and Honors Sociology in his fourth year at Payton. He listed critical thinking, perspective-taking, and the ability to voice your own opinions as among these skills. “I think there’s definitely a difference in ability compared to their peers.”

Debaters compete in pairs, which usually change from tournament to tournament. Each debate in a tournament is organized into a series of speeches, alternating between sides. Each side must be prepared to debate either side of the argument, since they don’t learn which side they’ll have to take until 15 minutes before the debate begins. Judges, who are often varsity debaters or coaches, decide the winners.

Only one topic is debated for the entirety of each school year, by the entire country — this year it is whether the U.S. government should “substantially increase its economic and/or diplomatic engagement with the People’s Republic of China.” The affirmative side in a debate has to argue that, indeed, the U.S. should substantially increase that engagement, and the negative side has to argue that they should not. The specific arguments used, however, often change from debate to debate — for instance, in one tournament the affirmative could provide evidence that the U.S. and China together could slow global warming, while in another they might focus on how increased partnership could prevent a major global conflict.

Vinluan has been coaching the team since he came to Payton, although it existed before he arrived. He said success isn’t his primary goal for the novices. “It’s their first year on a four-year journey. Their goal shouldn’t be to win. Their goal should be improvement.”

Some of the novices have indeed been winning, however. For instance: Ji Yoon Yang ‘20 and Maggie Rivera ‘20 started off the year as novices, but are now debating at the varsity level (there is no level in between) — although they have yet to be paired together. While both participated in debate in middle school, Yang said it was still a big change. “High schoolers are faster thinkers. You have to improve your standard to be competitive.”

That she has most certainly done. As a novice, she reached the semifinals in one tournament, in which she garnered a top speaker award, which is given to the debater with the most individual speaker points in a tournament (awarded by judges in addition to deciding the overall result of each debate). As a varsity debater, she reached the finals in one tournament.

Rivera, meanwhile, won a tournament, in which she was named 11th speaker, and reached the semifinals twice, the first time being named fifth speaker and the latter time top speaker, as a novice. At the varsity level, she once reached the octafinals.

Alex Sherman ‘17, a nationally ranked varsity debater who partnered with Yang at one tournament, gave a slightly tongue-in-cheek response when asked his thoughts on working with the novices. “They’re freshmen so I’m not a huge fan, but they’ll turn into dope people.”

He recalled his time as a novice. “I remember being really annoying and bad at debate. I like to think I’m less annoying and less bad at debate now.”

His biggest piece of advice for the novices? “The best debater is a confident debater.”

Vinluan praised the varsity members for their assistance to the novices, noting that they spend 4-7 weeks in the summer at various debate camps researching cards (pieces of evidence — for instance, a newspaper article) that can be used by both them and the novices in the next school year.

“While I teach them how to debate, they teach them the specific arguments,” he said of the varsity members. He also noted how they have judged novice practice debates and given feedback, and how before each tournament each varsity debater is assigned a novice pairing to assist with strategizing.

Said Vinluan, “Without the varsity kids, the novices couldn’t see anywhere near the kind of success they’ve seen this year.”

Novice Declan Davis ‘20, who won a tournament with Rivera earlier this year, said he does debate because he likes learning about foreign affairs and because he wants to enter politics. “Maybe this will help.”

Like Yang and Rivera, he competed in middle school.

For Kuberski and every other freshman on the team besides the aforementioned three, this is the first year of debate. “I’ve always been an opinionated person,” Kuberski said. “I thought I might as well try it out.”

Debate does come with its challenges, of course. “It takes a lot of time,” said Ezra Boldizsar ‘20. Tournaments usually last three days (Friday-Sunday), and debaters also have to spend time preparing — for example, cutting cards (excising portions of the cards provided to them that they deem not strictly necessary, as debaters only have a limited amount of time to read their evidence).

And they attend debate practice twice a week during enrichment. Practices involve discussions on strategy and how arguments can be improved, mostly in debate jargon that’s nearly incomprehensible to the layman (“the 2AR,” for example — the second affirmative rebuttal speech).

Kuberski cited “flowing” — a specific type of detailed note-taking utilized during debates — as a major challenge. “It was impossible when I first started out.”

While debate does have a strong academic component, there are moments of levity too.

Kuberski recalled how she has sometimes used her prep time between speeches to show the judge memes. She explained that she keeps a folder of debate-related memes.

Yang likes getting the chance to talk to competitors between rounds. “Even though they were formally your opponents, you get to end up making friends across the city and suburbs,” she said.

Boldizsar said he likes the team bus rides to tournaments, which, at least for novices, are all held at various high schools in the city and suburbs. When asked why he does debate, his reply?

“‘Cause it’s fun.”

Everyone else seems to agree.

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