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Sandy Journal

Canyons Middle School debate program grows as student interest increases

Feb 01, 2018 02:42AM ● By Julie Slama

Indian Hills' policy debaters Isabel Heil and Taylor Hurst celebrate winning the Jan. 11 competition. (Julie Slama/City Journals)

Hundreds of Canyons School District middle school students filled the halls and classrooms at Mt. Jordan after school one day in late October.

Some were talking as fast as they could while others scribbled notes. Yet others were found pacing or reciting in the hallways.

These students are part of the district’s middle school debate program, which gives students a chance to try their hand at either debate or speech, said Leslie Robinett, district English language arts specialist, who coordinates the program.

“This gives students a real-world application of English and language arts,” she said. “They need to form an argument, research, write, speak and listen and then tests those skills. They work individually or with another in the competition, but ultimately, they’re part of their school team and are learning teamwork as well.”

She said these skills — critical thinking, reasoning and communication — also will translate to their classroom work as well as benefit them in the real world.

Robinett said the program has steadily grown since she received a grant five years ago to help make debate an extension of the core curriculum. The result has been six of the eight middle schools developing at least one class, with Midvale and Butler middle schools looking into the possibility of adding classes in the future.

“This means most of these students are getting class time in addition to the one hour each week after school. They’re able to learn more from returning students, mentors and coaches in addition to researching and practicing,” she said.

The interest has increased as well. Last year, Robinett said about 250 sixth-, seventh- and eighth-grade students across the district participated. This year, the number has increased to about 375.

The students compete in four areas — policy debate, Lincoln Douglas debate, original oratory speech and extemporaneous speaking. Policy, which at this tournament had 95 entries — 190 students participating — is the area more students pursue as many of the students get an opportunity to compete in fifth grade, she said.

While not all middle school coaches have a debate background, Robinett meets with all coaches regularly to share ideas and talk about the season’s tournaments. 

Mt. Jordan Coach Ben Simmons said he came to coaching debate without prior debate experience.

“I was hired in band and English and then was told we need a creative writing and debate coach,” he said, adding that Robinett was quick to train him and give him materials. “I knew how to teach students in argumentative writing so I went along from there.”

Simmons said that although Mt. Jordan has won all but one district title, it has helped that he has a deep team. This year, he has about 160 students in five classes.

“The first year, we were all new. After we won, our numbers went up and it has continued as our students are highlighted. Greatness breeds greatness,” he said. “With Albion beating us two years ago, it inspired our students to come back to beat them this past year.”

He is quick to say that he gives students the tools and materials they need, but the drive is their own.

“Students are capable of so much more. They set and know their expectation and they rise to it,” he said. “The biggest thing to me is that they’re able to advocate for themselves — whether it’s to a teacher or a job. They can speak and listen and understand points of views to make their point. This is helping give kids a voice and become autonomous.”

He is joined in coaching by English teacher Krista Foncault.

The next tournaments are Jan. 11, 2018 and March 15, 2018, which will extend invitations to schools outside the district. The season will continue through the district and state tournaments in April.