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San Diego Middle School Debate League builds brain muscles and life skills

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Pacific Trails Middle School Speech and Debate’s Public Forum teams at the Fall 2018 Invitational.
Courtesy
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San Diego Middle School Debate League founders Saikumar Gantla and Luke Huang at the Fall 2018 Invitational. Courtesy

The San Diego Middle School Debate League is barely a year old, but it’s gained lots of momentum in that short time. The league was formed as a collaboration between high schools around Northern San Diego County to make Speech and Debate a highly regarded extracurricular activity for middle school students.

Run by co-presidents Luke Huang and Sai Gantla, the league was borne out of the need for debate competitors. Huang and Gantla – both high school students at Canyon Crest Academy -- coached students at Pacific Trails Middle School (in the San Dieguito Union High School District) and realized that their students weren’t able to put the skills they developed to use in real debates. So they formed the San Diego Middle School Debate League to coordinate San Diego’s middle school debate tournaments as a way of helping middle school students get a head start before they reach high school debating. In just one year, 15 schools have joined the league’s tournaments.

Luke and Sai’s passion for debating came from their own experience. “Debate is important to me,” Luke says, “because it helped me build confidence and awareness of current events. On top of that, debate is a significant part of my social life. Many of the friendships I hold today started through debate tournaments.”

Debate topics are chosen by the National Speech and Debate Association. For example, in last November’s tournament, students debated whether the U.S. should impose price controls on the pharmaceutical industry. For their upcoming tournament on April 20, students will debate whether the United Nations should make India a permanent member of the Security Council.

Four main events are offered at every tournament. First, there’s Public Forum which is a partner debate relevant to current events. Second, there’s Parliamentary Debate which is modeled from the English Parliament. Debaters have 20 minutes to work with their partners to prepare cases either affirming or negating a given resolution with no prior preparation. Third is Lincoln-Douglas Debate which is one-on- one and places emphasis on analytical arguments, values and philosophy applied to current issues. And lastly, there’s Speech where competitors write or select a piece of literature, then bring it to life through the creative use of voice, movement and facial expression. Throughout a tournament, students are power-matched until they reach semi-finals or finals.

The league makes it a point to reach out to underfunded schools throughout San Diego County, because they realize Speech and Debate is a very costly activity. “I’ve often had to skip tournaments at prestigious schools like UC Berkeley or Stanford because these tournaments cost hundreds of dollars each,” Luke explains. “For underfunded schools, the costs of tournaments are an even larger barrier for students who want to compete. So our league places an emphasis on alleviating the financial problems some Speech and Debate programs may face.”

The skills developed through research and debate can truly be categorized as life skills – no matter what field students may pursue professionally. According to Gherty Galace, a Speech and Debate coach and tournament coordinator at Canyon Crest Academy (also an English teacher), “These students learn how to synthesize and research their own information. They learn to organize their opening speeches and they learn the rules of engagement--how to argue effectively, logically and passionately.

“Many times, they learn to get out of their own comfort zones, as they research ideas and topics that might be out of their own knowledge base or new to their own set of values. At the end of their competitive rounds, they demonstrate sportsman-like behavior and sometimes compliment their opponents and shake hands. Many of our students have no trouble approaching adults and engaging discussions with them. Speech and Debate really builds up students’ confidence as they compete with other students around the league.”

The San Diego Middle School and Novice Spring Invitational is coming up on April 20 and will take pace at Torrey Pines High School, 3710 Del Mar Heights Road. To register for the tournament, go to www.sdmsl.tabroom.com or go to sdmsleague.weebly.com to learn more.