Transcription of the episode “Developing public communication skills: Speech and debate team”

[00:00:15] Amy H-L: I’m Amy Halpern-Laff.

[00:00:16] Jon M: And I’m Jon Moscow. Welcome to Ethical Schools. Our guest today is Anna Steed, speech and debate coach at Rocky Mountain Prep Rise, a public charter school in Denver, Colorado. Welcome, Anna.

[00:00:19] Anna S: Thank you.

[00:00:20] Amy H-L: We often think of debate in connection with elite private schools, but according to U.S. News and World Report, at Rocky Mountain Prep Rise, minority enrollment is 95 percent, and 67 percent of students are economically disadvantaged. Why did you decide to start a speech and debate program? 

[00:00:33] Anna S: I did not decide that.

[00:00:34] Jon M: Do you want to elaborate?

[00:00:36] Anna S: It was the decision of the founding principal of what was formerly known as Strive Prep Rise Public Charter High School in the far northeast of Denver, serving a majority of Black and brown students in a pretty much kind of forgotten part of the city. And it was the founding principal who said our first elective would be speech and debate. Out of everything else that she could have chosen, it was speech and debate. And then a combination of an outdoor educational program was the only other kind of like split choice for the year.

[00:01:09] Jon M: And how did you become involved in it?

[00:01:13] Anna S: I was asked to advise how the program might work. And in thinking about it, I became a little bit of a, well, I just have to do a type of control freak, if you will. And I said, okay, fine. I will, if you need me to, because the original offer was to teach at the high school and I had always been a college instructor.

And so I said, “Oh, I can help kind of give you some ideas on how I think a high school speech and debate class should go.” I did high school speech and debate at my public school in Denver, Colorado, but, a bit more well known. I think it was like 2000 was the size of the school when I was there at East High School. And we had a great big program and it was super fun. And I love speech and debate. And then all those years later, thinking about running a program, I just said, “well, fine, I’ll do it. How can I teach at the high school?” And I started working there part time, teaching a section of speech and debate and a section of English, ninth grade English. Out of all things, I didn’t think I’d be doing that, but to make the position work, that is what I had to teach and that’s how I got involved.

[00:02:18] Amy H-L: And how did you get from an elective to a team?

[00:02:21] Anna S: I just felt that I wanted to offer that opportunity in the class, right. To take what we’re learning in the class outside and see how they could stand up to other teams and schools in Colorado. And some students were eager. Some students said, “Absolutely not, never. Thank you so much. I appreciate it. No way.” 

And from those who said, Yeah, okay, let’s see how it goes,” that’s how we started. Our team was a team of nine to begin with in our first year. We only started competing in December of our first year, even though the season starts in November, sometimes in October for novice, so we could have started months earlier. So we had a shortened year that first year, did the best we could, really learned a lot. And then each year we just grew and grew and so did the success of the team as well.

[00:03:09] Jon M: Many of our listeners are probably familiar with what debate is, or debate teams are, but what is speech and debate?

[00:03:17] Anna S: So speech and debate, I mean, absolutely right, everything that you’re thinking of when you think of debate, that’s a part of it, as well as the interpretive or platform events. So that would be, an example would be interpretation of poetry, program oral interpretation, humorous interpretation, dramatic interpretation, and then original oratory. So, I ,think, that big call to action speech. Or informative speaking, which is a fabulous event where a student researches a topic, creates visual aids if they choose to, and then presents all at once in a tight 10 minute speech, a speech where they are informing the audience on anything, some aspect of you name it. The formative topic can really be whatever student desires, to really get nitty and gritty and kind of have a narrow view of what you might want to learn about this particular topic.

[00:04:14] Jon M: What tends to attract students to it?

[00:04:16] Anna S: Good question. Normally, it’s the question I get is, “how do you get students to do it?,” because I don’t know if the attraction is immediate, thinking of, “Oh, I need to compete and create something myself and memorize a 10 minute speech that I also am revising a ton and blocking and rehearsing with a million people and getting a lot of feedback and being critiqued almost constantly with it.” So, I don’t know what why they want to get into it. I was a drama kid. So, when I was in high school, I was in drama. First, I knew that coming into high school from my experience in middle school. So I think the element of maybe, like, bite size, dramatic competition, I kind of was into that because I was also an athlete. So I got to kind of combine my love of drama with my love of competition and, there speech and debate, that was for me. So, you’d have to ask current students right now. “What is the attraction? “

[00:05:07] Amy H-L: And what skills do these students learn, aside from research, which you just talked about?

[00:05:12] Anna S: Well, to be able to kind of get over the fear of public speaking, I would say it’s just the Number One skill that they’re going to take with them. And that translates to so many different industries, innumerable jobs that you can even imagine where you have to command attention from peers or not peers giving either instructions or information, trying to communicate so that work gets done, or that you have opportunities to give ideas and share your ideas. So that ability to speak publicly and confidently with structure and purpose. That’s a valuable lesson, I think, for for any human on the planet. 

And then outside of that, you are on a team, you’re working really diligently alongside of your academics. So you’re also seeing how different fields and studies and areas of, what you can learn anywhere, kind of, you’re learning all at once in speech and debate because you’re kind of putting together and synthesizing all of what you know maybe into a speech piece that you’re working on where the theme is school shootings. That was the champion of the NSDA national tournament this past summer. The most stunning, unbelievable POI about school shootings. But that was only to be probably just won first place by, who knows, a hair to what second place was, which will blow your mind. And what third place was, which would blow your mind. And then, the years before that, I mean, these are the most incredible performances you’ve seen about themes that you can’t believe a high schooler is putting this together and creating these emotions and connections. All while doing it like this, live on stage, but sometimes to thousands of people. So it’s pretty remarkable.

And then, of course, competition aspects, there’s data and research that goes back forever about the benefits of being on a team. Competitive, if you will, sports, quote, unquote, I think that’s such a valuable aspect. And maybe, if I talk to my students right now, they say that was the most valuable, what the connections they made with friends during high school during that time that would get them through high school, right. 

One thing that I say to my students pretty much every single Friday. I say to my advanced class during mindfulness is you’ve made it through another week of high school in America. That is no easy feat, right. I mean, that is what those are. That’s one of my signature lines because it’s true. And I mean that. And I say that I’ll probably almost to myself, right. ” I’m also a teacher who has made it through another week of teaching high school in America, not an easy feat.” And so we like to kind of honor what we’re doing, the importance of what we’re doing in terms of, like, communication, sharing stories, debating topics, seeing different points of view. So that’s really a skill. I think that’s important also, is the finding value in others, in communication, in bonds, you name it. 

[00:08:06] Amy H-L: And for our audience, what is NSDA and POI?.

[00:08:09] Anna S: Thank you. POI is Program Oral Interpretation. And NSDA is the National Speech and Debate Association.

[00:08:16] Jon M: What is program oral interpretation?

[00:08:18] Anna S: So, that is a 10 minute interpretive, I would say piece or program. And in this case, for your audience, it’s probably like a presentation. So a student is going to stand up in front of, in a typical competition, a typical Saturday in pretty much any state in America, the student will be standing in front of an adult judge and their maybe four to five other competitors in their event, let’s say this one is Program Oral Interpretation, and one at a time they’re going to present their piece. And that is a maximum of 10 minutes is how long the program has to be, and there are time requirements and restrictions and things of that nature. But in this Program Oral Interpretation, students, using a little black binder, and many times as a prop that’s encouraged, and the script is inside of this little book, but they’re not reading their script out of this book. They’re using this book to truly bring the piece to life because for that speech side of speech and debate, just like debate, think of debaters in their ties in their suits, formal clothes. So our speech interpreters, right, in their suits and their ties and formal clothes in a lot of different ways. And while that’s not a mandated part of it, largely, you’re going to see that. And so in these interpretive pieces, the student has no props outside of this black book. But in humorous interpretation, there are no props. In dramatic interpretation, no props. In original oratory, you’re not using anything. In informative, you have your visual aids, but that’s not used as you can’t use it as a prop. And so what you’re seeing in Program Oral Interpretation is a student, very formally, but creating with just the use of a black book, an entire world, many worlds, different worlds all at once through character changes.

In Program Oral Interpretation, one of the requirements is that it’s multi genre interpretive piece. So students are collecting around a single theme, let’s say school shootings or what it’s like to be a Black woman in America, a Black girl in America. That can be a theme, right. And so they’re taking a theme and then they’re finding different pieces of literature and cutting that literature. When I say cutting, I’m saying, let’s say it’s a novel. You can’t present a novel in 10 minutes. So maybe you’re taking a small paragraph from it. Maybe you’re taking a whole chapter from it. It doesn’t matter how much or how little you take from one of your sources, but it does have to be a multi genre piece. So maybe it’s a piece of a short story, a piece from a play and an article or an essay. And they’re weaving these excerpts together, perhaps, dialogue, perhaps narrative, and they’re creating everything. 

So they’re creating the characters, the places, the locations, the different times, the areas and making basically an argument in their introduction, that is the part that a speech we always call them speech kids. That is part that is a speech and a competitor would be writing. Their interpretive event is an introduction that explains what is perhaps their connection to this piece. They do have to list all of their sources, right, so whatever sources they use, it’s the source, it’s the author, perhaps, it’s just generally where the publication or where it came from publication.

And so they also get a chance to speak to the audience of why this topic is important. What needs to be recognized with this topic and perhaps, from their point of view. And so that part, it’s a small part of their piece, but they get a chance to really speak their voice as nothing else that they perform. 

Do they write? There are different supplemental events at the national tournament where you can present your own writing in poetic form. Original spoken word was a brand new event. I think it’s just maybe three years old, so that’s a brand new event where students actually get to write their own original spoken word poetry.

Otherwise, and, this is the age old event and it’s celebrating its 100th year in 2025 of the national tournament. So poetry is something that’s been there for a long time. Program oral interpretation is a little bit newer, but still has been around for quite some time as well as the other interpretive events.

I’m sorry, that’s such a long explanation of, what is program oral interpretation. I say, well, let me tell you, because really, you have to see it. And as soon as you see it, you know it and you go, oh, well, I mean, I’m talking– these are 10 minute pieces. And within two minutes, you’re like, “Oh, I totally get what this is. Oh, this is fascinating. Oh, no way.” I’ve been doing this for, this is my eighth year teaching. I did it for three and a half years in high school, and I still will sit in around at a, you name it, a random tournament anywhere in this country. And I’ll sit there I’ll go ” No way.” I won’t believe how they’re doing something I will have never seen it before. I’ve never thought of doing that before. So it’s just this wonderful place of also innovation. It’s a place of tradition. I mean, and we can talk about, there’s plenty of ways to talk about the long tradition of the NSDA, how long it’s been around. And that’s cool. The alumni who are part of the NSDA. it’s unbelievable. The list is unbelievable, goes on and on and on. So, when you are a part of it, there is just that kind of, this is so exciting, but you do need to see it to truly kind of get what’s happening. I understand why my students or my kid has gone for 12 hours on a Saturday doing something for school, right? Doing something academic that colleges love and they come home and they’re so amped. They have a brand new set of friends. They can’t wait till the next one. “Mom, I need a new, pair of pants” or “Mom, I want this,” or “I have to do a new piece,” or “I’m totally dropping this piece. I’m never doing it again.” All of a sudden you see sometimes a brand new life that a student never thought they could have. It’s a whole world.

[00:14:05] Jon M: This sounds totally amazing. How does it get reflected in measured academic performance?

There are a number of ways that are quantifiable. You can see that in studies. The National Urban Debate League is doing great work right now, with, wonderful research about what policy debate can do to close the literacy gap for students and then just at the very personal level, I can see what happens to my students at the academic level. Every day, it just kind of expands. Everything they’re doing in class kind of gets opened up even a bit more, but almost from their own perspective and curiosities. If that makes sense as an answer, right. As a teacher, to me, that means, “Oh, a student is going to care more and want to know more.” And that kind of increases your academic ability. I don’t think it’s something that, ” Oh, maybe my academics are so so. I want to do speech and debate to improve them. That’s the reason why I’m doing it.” Right, where that’s kind of your sole focus. It’s more like, “I had no idea what speech and debate could do for my understanding of what academics can be.” That’s, I guess, a more accurate answer in terms of just showing students how learning can be so personal and valuable. I think that’s it too, right, how their experiences can really be seen as something viable, intellectual, et cetera. 

[00:15:21] Amy H-L: Anna, since you’re working mainly with disadvantaged students, would it be fair to say that this promotes equity?

[00:15:29] Anna S: Absolutely. 100%. 1000%. 

[00:15:31] Jon M: How does speech and debate students’ comfort level, being around more privileged students? 

[00:15:35] Anna S: It absolutely helps. I mean, as someone coming from a neighborhood that is notorious for its history and gang violence and whatnot, and having to grow up that way, and being in speech and debate and being in different spaces and then going to a predominantly white institution… I went to Wesleyan University, and it was amazing and wonderful. And even I, still, at that time, after being on the speech team for three and a half years, and traveling to Stanford for a competition and different parts of the country for competitions, I still had a bit of culture shock. But I know it was less than it could than it could have been. And I know that my students who I send off to college, I know that they’re still going to have those moments. And I know that they have the tools and skills. Going back to that question of what kind of skills they have to work and move through any of those moments where you say, “Holy. . . What if I’m speaking to any audience member who…” There are Black and brown and went to college and just, thought you were ready to be around predominantly white spaces. And you maybe went to a high school where, you know these kids. And then you go to college and you have no idea. And that is a huge learning moment. And I had it and it was so valuable and my brother and sister, my older brother and sister who went to private colleges in Colorado, they both told me, “Hey,, it’s going to happen.” And I said “No, it’s not.” But I was able to work through it. And my students are able. We only only have a few graduating classes, so I cannot speak for teachers who’ve been doing this for over a decade. This is just my eighth year, and our first graduating class was in 2020 as we built out our school. 

So they are now seniors in college, and they’re just as wonderful as could be. They’re just, they’re all doing, just so proud of them. And then the classes behind them, everything that they’ve had to go through. 2020 was the COVID year. So, my experience too, is also very skewed from maybe what it could have been had we started four years prior or whatnot. 2020 was they graduated in a parking lot and then we had our next class and we’ve had a couple of classes since then graduate who went back to school, and it’s been wonderful to see where they’ve gone and how they’ve taken the experience with them. 

[00:17:43] Amy H-L: I was just going to ask how you handled this or continued working on speech and debate during COVID.

[00:17:50] Anna S: I would say it’s 100 percent, hands down, the will of speech and debate coaches across the country who said we are not going to let this activity die. We’re still going to provide a space. All day on Saturday! We’ll provide it online. I mean, the NSDA, speech wire, you name it, like a tab room, all the organizations from the NSDA to NIETOC to the NCFL, the Kentucky TOC, the NFHS. There are so many organizations that value speech and debate. The National Urban Debate League, right. Everyone knew we had to keep this going and we really just made the switch to online, and we sat in front of our computers and students wrestled with ring lights and video cameras and backdrops and noisy households. And dogs would run through the screen during their very serious presentations. And once we had — she actually just graduated as the number one informative speaker in the country; she’s at University of Chicago right now, starting her freshman year in one of her recorded videos for her info. You hear sirens in the very end. And actually it worked. It was a surveillance type piece that she was doing. And at the very end, when she’s making her final point, you see because of her neighborhood, flashing red and white or red and blue lights and hearing a siren. 

And so that was, I think, the year that many speech and debate coaches will forget, right. The year that the activity forgot, we went through it. We did it. Let’s not relive it. But we did have some wonderful things that came out of it. That also helped equity in terms of access to tournaments access for schools that may be in locations, more rural locations, districts that don’t have robust speech and debate programs, because in every state, every district, speech and debate programs are… who knows what, right. I mean, it’s going to be, going to be dependent on that. So we were able to with just sheer will keeping the activity alive those years and leaving that in the past, but taking with us some really great lessons and now there are even championships, national championships, that are held only online, which is really exciting, that students can still do, and that even gives them different skills of video positioning and lighting and sound and even communicating with your family sometimes in speech and debate. That was a skillset that students are not necessarily getting when part of the magic of a speech and debate activity is some students really need to get out of their house all day on the weekend, right. That will be really great if I did not have to be in this house, right, for whatever I’m going through, for whatever my parents don’t appreciate or believe that I am or who I am, there’s this place I can tell them where I’m going and they can verify that with a coach and a teacher and a school that I am there and it’s academic. So I can be left alone for that many hours. And sometimes I don’t know if parents even know what the students are doing, right. They just know that, “Oh, yeah, I dropped my kid off here. I pick him up at this time.” And like, that’s what’s happening, but, during the online year, students had to really communicate with their families. Like, “Hey, I need you guys not to be here or to try to be quiet.” Or even with their little brothers and sisters, they had to make deals. Like, “Hey, can you not barge into the room for the next national performance,” right. 

So, I mean, it’s also just where you are, no matter what’s happening in the world. If speech and debate is happening, the students who are participating are getting so much out of it. And this doesn’t mean if they’re amazing and winning every single time. This means if they’re doing it, just if they know, and they can say, “Oh, I experienced that” and having that story. It’s awesome. 

And then, like I said, look at the alumni list. It’s sheer amazing, unbelievable success of what we have to offer here, just in the States, and then there are also international teams that people can be a part of. I just encourage everyone to go take a look at the speech and debate website. It’s wonderful. 

[00:21:41] Jon M: Have you found that participation in the teams has impacted students’ ambitions, students’ future plans? Have you seen these kinds of changes? 

[00:21:51] Anna S: Over and over and over and over and over again. Absolutely. 

[00:21:54] Amy H-L: So if listeners want to learn more or start their own speech and debate programs, what’s the first step they should take?

[00:22:00] Anna S: They really can go to any of the wonderful organizations and their websites that I mentioned, some of the largest speech and debate organizations that are around the country and that are really committed to making sure that this activity is accessible to everyone from every background, every faith, every economic background that you can think of, every school district, because it is, like I said, it can be very, it can be difficult. So anyone who wants to start it, please don’t think it’s like starting like a booster club, no, no knock on booster clubs. I was a part of the booster club, but it’s not something where it’s, hey, maybe for a short time or for a short season or for a few games really is, kind of a commitment if you want it to have the impact.

Again, the National Urban Debate League has done some really Interesting research on what it takes to kind of get students on the debate side hooked into programs, but, if they don’t reach that number of tournaments, of being able to attend that number of tournaments, and that’s through issues of transportation. We are still a country dealing with high school students in America who want to get into doing really amazing things that because of whatever is going on with their family, and that’s a number of things, right, families are so different and have different timeframes and things that they do in different places. But a student can’t get some place without transportation can’t be a part of it. So we’re still having those barriers to it. It’s expensive activity at times and in different ways, especially for schools that want to provide food for students at the tournaments. Those are full days that they would want to be taking care of students needs and whatnot.

And, so it’s easier, like I said, if you are wanting to start a speech and debate team, it’s easier if you have a lot of resources. And that’s not a problem. Your way to starting a speech and debate team really is not that difficult for the logistical part of it. But then, for the motivational part of it for getting students to want to do it. It is selling to students the benefit of it for college, but also to parents, the benefit of it for a number of things and for friends, for bonds. It’s a varsity sport. You can letter in speech and debate. So, if you want to start, please know that it can be either difficult or not as difficult, depending on your resources, and in that case, you do want to reach out to these organizations that would be going to the national speech and debate organization contacting NIETOC. That’s national individual events tournament of champions. That’s a wonderful organization, the University of Kentucky tournament of champions, the NCFL, that’s the National Catholic Forensic League, the NDCA, the NFHS. And like I said, the National Urban Debate League. So those are the places where you can go and they have wonderful resources, especially to start your own team, to start a club. You can contact myself. I’m happy to do whatever you need to help you get going. I’m committed to increasing speech and debate across the country. So I would love it if I were your first call and I could send you the exact thing that you need, because it is truly one of the most magical activities that a student, especially a student today, right now, with everything that’s going on, I’m talking from AI to mental health issues, that they are dealing with all at once when they’re at school.

And, the special package and brand of American public education that we have going on, it kind of cuts through all of that. And it cuts through some of that artifice where students have to present themselves kind of wholly and they have to truly back up what they’re saying. That’s such a great thing that people say, “Well, how can you back it up, back what you’re saying?” And you do you find your evidence. You find your sources that are reliable, you find your argument threads, you find what’s important, you find what could be possible, and you get to communicate that, and it’s really wonderful and powerful. 

So please start a speech and debate team wherever you are. Tell them Anna sent you, whoever, this crazy lady Anna, who’s a speech and debate coach, she just went on and on about speech and debate. But she made kind of a good case for it. Please contact them, contact me, and see what you can bring to your community, to your schools.

[00:26:09] Jon M: Is there anything we haven’t discussed that you’d like to add? 

[00:26:12] Anna S: Oh, please, please reach out and judge at your local speech and debate tournaments. That’s a huge obstacle that anyone who’s putting on a tournament faces. These are all day tournaments that serve tens and tens of students. Sometimes, hundreds of students at these national tournaments. And what’s really important are wonderful adult judges. I think the requirement really is just that you graduated high school and that you can sit and judge and you can judge your interpretive events. They do like to have people with some kind of debate background. If you have any debate background whatsoever, really qualified judges in debate are super important. There are some, really kind of heavy rules when it comes to debate, and the kids learn these rules and have to abide by these rules. So they really deserve qualified judges, but almost anyone can judge something where. It’s almost like watching the six nominees for the best picture for the Academy Awards and then ranking them by who just did the best. That’s kind of what that is. So please, judge at a local tournament, reach out to your high schools, offer that up. That could really be great.

What I would love to add is we want to keep the activity alive, like I said, it’s celebrating its 100th anniversary of the national tournament in 2025, and we just want to make sure that it has another 100 years because of the value it brings to our society. Not just students individually, but our society.

Finally, the last thing that I would want to bring up is in speech and debate if you’re doing the debate side, especially if you’re doing the interpretive side or the platform events where you’re writing your own speech, researching it or extemporaneous speaking, where you have 30 minutes to basically respond in a 7 minute speech from the top of your head of a question of a current event, either internationally or nationally. So that’s also a wonderful event that I didn’t give any love to. I’m so sorry, extempers, if you’re out there, but extemporative speaking is awesome. And students have to think on their feet and research very quickly and present a cogent argument and answer a plan, and so that’s a wonderful practice. 

And so whether you’re competing in any event in speech and debate, the fact that it is not considered or not given English credit at the high school level, at the middle school level, really truly is beyond a teacher like myself and pretty much anyone I speak to and talk to, or who knows speech and debate. So that’s also what I would say is talk to your school districts, talk to your school boards, really asking why can’t we just require speech and debate as an English credit? That might help some of our motivation, maybe some of our attendance, maybe some of our programs, the teacher shortage, where you’re really asking for speech and debate coaches, where you have so much more autonomy and ability to react to students one on one. It’s almost like built in differentiated learning, more so than just a standard ELA class. So I would really push for those three things. Please go judge, please make speech and debate part of requirements to graduate high school or any of that and to support as much as you can any existing speech and debate students by checking out the organizations. And maybe donating your suits, donating your time. We have wonderful folks in Colorado who will donate their old suits they’re not wearing, who will donate their money because it’s really expensive to feed students who are super hungry on the weekend. So, it’s really a thing that you can support almost any single way. And also when you hear about it, know that something good’s happening at your school. 

[00:29:37] Jon M: I just wanted to ask quickly about the judging. If somebody wants to judge, is there a training program if you go to the school?

[00:29:43] Anna S: Yes! Oh, there are training programs online. The NSDA has training programs. I believe the NFHS may have a training program that’s available online. And then you go to any tournament, they’ll train you the day of. Even at my tournament. So if you’re listening to this, and you’re in Denver, or anywhere outside of Denver metro area, and available on November 4th, you can come judge at our tournament, and we will train you right on the spot, and it really is something that within one round, one day, you will know what the magic is, and you will feel so happy that you helped and contributed. 

[00:30:16] Jon M: Thank you, Anna Steed, of Rocky Mountain Prep Rise.

[00:30:19] Anna S: Thank you so much. 

[00:30:20] Amy H-L: And thank you, listeners. Check out our new video series, What Would YOU Do?, a collaboration with the Harvard Graduate School of Education and EdEthics. Go to our website,, and click video. The goal of this series is not to provide right answers, but to illustrate a variety of ethical viewpoints.

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