Competing in high school debate is not for the faint of heart. To be successful in debate competitions, students must be have extensive knowledge of current events, legal precedents, and ethics. They must practice effective communication and poise under fire. They must learn to make persuasive, cogent arguments about complex legal and ethical issues in a very short time, and then, just moments later, be able to turn around and argue the exact opposite side of the issue in front of a different judge.
Lincoln Academy has a strong debate team, led by science teacher Matthew Leland and made up of about 30 LA students in grades 9-12. The team is having a very successful start to the 2014-15 season. The team practices twice a week after school, and they spend their practice time researching issues that will be debated, which range from historic questions like the morality of the death penalty to more timely questions such as the safety of genetically modified foods. The team also practices debate technique, set up so that experienced debaters can help novice debaters learn strategies for presenting and defending each case. All meets are on Saturdays, and the season runs throughout the winter months.
Resolutions to be debated are determined before each meet, and are deliberately chosen to test student’s ability to argue legal and moral issues surrounding an ethical question with no factual right or wrong answer. Competitive high school debate in Maine includes three different formats: Lincoln Douglas Debate, Public Forum Debate, and Student Congress.
Lincoln Douglas (LD) debate is a one-on-one debate in which each debater argues the resolution twice on the affirmative side and twice on the negative side during each meet. Because the debater can’t choose to argue only the side they prefer, they need to be prepared to argue both sides of every resolution. The resolutions are determined at a national level by the National Forensics League and change every two months. Some recent Lincoln Douglas resolutions include: a just society ought to presume consent for organ procurement from the deceased, and the “right to be forgotten” from Internet searches ought to be a civil right.
Public Forum Debate (PF) is set up as team of two against a team of two. Students prepare both an affirmative and negative case, but the side debated is determined by a coin toss each round. The PF topics change monthly. This year they have been: on balance, public subsidies for professional athletic organizations in the US benefit their local communities; on balance, the benefits of genetically modified foods outweigh the harm; and finally, for-profit prisons in the US should be banned.
For the first time ever, Lincoln won 1st place as a team for Lincoln Douglas and Public Forum Debate. In addition, Lincoln placed 4th as a school for Student Congress. In Lincoln Douglas individual debate, Johanna Neeson placed 2nd in novice. Ally Wehrle placed 5th, Abbey Healey placed 3rd, and Isabella Watmough placed 2nd in junior varsity. Elise Dumont placed 2nd in varsity. Ed Frankonis received an Honorable Mention for Student Congress-Senate.
Debate helps students develop their public speaking skills, and provides an opportunity for students to develop and present an evidence-based argument in a high-stakes environment. The pressure of debate competition leads students to hone their communication skills and not be flustered by the stress of public speaking. Junior Kate Laemmle explains her experience this way: “Debate has probably been one of the best things I’ve done in my last three years at Lincoln. I have the ability to intellectually engage in and eloquently debate about topics that are relevant and meaningful. It’s competitive and fun and a pretty amazing experience, with the camaraderie between teams, my teammates and our amazing coach, Mr. Leland.”