2021 April/May Rostrum

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MIDDLE The State of Middle School Speech and Debate Insights from a survey of NSDA middle school program advisors, as well as experienced coaches who are igniting young minds at the elementary and middle school levels.

by Amy Seidelman


hile many students aren’t introduced to speech and debate until ninth grade, in school districts across the United States the initiation is sooner. The goals for districts offering speech and debate to younger students echo those of their high school programs—instilling confidence, cultivating skills, and giving students a healthy way to fine tune and share their thoughts and opinions. Younger students also show interest in the activity for reasons similar to their high school counterparts—a sense of belonging, meeting new people, having fun, and—with a tournament or two under their belt—the dazzling buzz of capability. The National Speech & Debate Association, then the National Forensic League, expanded membership to middle schools in 1995 with the creation of the National Junior Forensic League. Over the quarter-century since, middle schools have come to represent 12% of overall membership. Elementary and middle school speech and debate participation builds a foundation for high school programs, but it’s not just a prologue. Students exposed to speech and debate at an earlier age retain the value of the experience even if they don’t continue in the activity, and elementary and middle schools stand much to gain by offering students the opportunity.



Paul Deards, head of middle school at Speyer Legacy School in New York City, where debate is part of the established curriculum starting in kindergarten, advocated for this early introduction in Education Week in 2014.1† “[R]esearch also tells us that middle school is a period of considerable brain growth with the shift from concrete to abstract processing and growing capabilities in problem solving, planning, and critical thinking,” Deards writes. “Debate can support and enhance brain development as an activity requiring and honing these skills.”

† https://www.edweek.org /leadership/ opinion-making-the-case-for-teachingstudents-to-debate/2014/08 Above: A middle school competitor poses at the 2019 National Speech & Debate Tournament