How They Do It Sunflower District Committee members are Kansans through and through. Humble, well spoken, and kind, the most boastful assertion they’ll utter is, “We’re doing pretty well for ourselves.” David Abel, three-diamond coach and Sunflower chair, has been a member of the District Committee since its formation. He was elected district chair eight years ago, after Sunflower’s first chair, Lois Peirson, retired. He believes Sunflower’s strength comes from its commitment to ensuring all students have an opportunity to be successful. “I think one of my abilities that has been very useful both as a committee member and as a chair is building a sense of community—trying to get a diverse group of people to work together for a common goal,” he says. “That seemed like a natural transition to serving as chair later on.” In his 17 years serving as a member of the Sunflower District Committee, David has continuously worked to bridge the gap between competition and camaraderie. It’s a culture that looks to synergize friendship and togetherness with a highly competitive playing field. As David explains, “We’re a very competitive bunch in our district, and that does not always breed community. The interest of coaching your team to be successful is not always the same as the district’s interest. I have tried very hard to open that up more to get coaches to see that there is a value in that. We are stronger together as a group than we are separately… I think that we’re at that point now. There is a very strong sense of helping each other to be successful.” James Harris, Director of Forensics at Andover High School, two-diamond coach, and seven-year committee member, agrees. “The coaches here are very supportive. Because it is a smaller geographic region, we see each other week in and week out. Our tournaments are very open, our
We create a playing field on which all students have an opportunity for success.”
— Vickie Fellers, coach
tab rooms are very open, we’re always jumping in and helping each other out. And that support at the tournament also spreads to coaching. We have a lot of great older coaches in the district who are more than happy to sit down and talk with people, help people out, and that’s created a culture that supports and encourages a lot of that.” Lynn Miller, one-diamond coach from Derby High School, continues: “We try to get everyone involved. We embrace all new programs and events that roll out from the NSDA, including Program Oral Interpretation and Informative Speaking last year and Big Questions this year. Although this requires substantial work from the committee, we will do whatever it takes to give students opportunities.” Giving students opportunities to succeed is a district-wide goal. It’s not about one team bringing in trophies in every event. Vickie Fellers, six-diamond coach and Director of Forensics at Wichita East High School, emphasizes that the Sunflower District creates an even playing field for its students. “Our district includes small schools of just a few hundred students, and large schools with more than 2,000 students. Both qualify students to the NSDA National Tournament,” she says. “We create a playing field on which all students have an opportunity for success.” For Mike Harris, Director of Debate and Forensics at Kapaun Mount Carmel High School and first-year committee member, the Sunflower District bridges the gap for students, not only by connecting them to more activities and providing them with an inclusive, competitive environment, but by helping them succeed in the years that follow high school. “[Having come] from the corporate world… in my experiences interacting, managing, and working
with people, communication is such an important aspect of everything that everyone does in their lives. Being able to provide students with the skills necessary to do that gives them the ability to communicate effectively as they move on with their adult careers.” The Sunflower District maintains a close connection with its alumni base, actively working to give students an opportunity to continue their speech and debate careers in college. “We’ve had a great track record of success getting people into college programs on scholarships across the country,” Mike says. “We’ve had a wonderful, wonderful base of alumni in all of our schools who come back and always say that speech and debate was such a valuable part of their lives. They come back and give their time while they’re in college working as assistant coaches and judging and giving back to the community and trying to provide for the next group of people.” For the Sunflower District, bridging the gap is about creating meaningful connections for students, not only in their work as debaters and speakers, but in their development as members of a community. The continuous return of alumni to the Sunflower District to support the activity can be seen in the committee members themselves. Having competed in the activity as high schoolers, they went on to have fulfilling careers as business owners, salespersons, and lobbyists, but found themselves returning again and again to the activity, until they eventually started second careers as teachers and coaches. For the Sunflower District, it’s all about connecting the dots, and finding harmony between competition and camaraderie, competitive success, and lifelong skills that lead to better speakers, better thinkers, and better people.
Sarah Brazier is a freelance writer and actor currently living in the Bay Area of California. She formerly coached at Saint Mary’s Hall. An NSDA alum from Wadsworth High School in Ohio, she placed second in Dramatic Interp at the 2010 Kansas City Nationals.
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Volume 91 Issue 4