In all competitions – sports, academic or performing arts – access matters. Especially in a Title I school, many students are unable to afford summer camps or ‘personal coaches’ that their more affluent peers can. To offset the advantages some programs gain through parental funding, it is possible instead to incorporate earlier access to speech and debate activities.
By developing a junior high speech and debate program, younger students can be offered the opportunity to participate and gain skills and experience. Incorporating high school competitors in the process provides a valuable tool to expand the educational opportunities of older team members, and perhaps to improve team morale and cohesiveness.
The first step to developing such a program is to get permission from important stakeholders. Start with gaining permission from the campus principal(s) where your target students are in attendance. In some districts, it may also be necessary to contact the superintendent or other district personnel. Each district will vary, but do not proceed without explicit permission. You will need the support of these individuals as your program grows.
Planning and securing funding of your new program will be crucial. Will your existing funding be sufficient? If so, is your campus principal willing to allow your current funds to pay for junior high competitors? It may be necessary to use fundraiser dollars to support your new program.
The next step is to recruit potential participants. Reach out to teachers in areas you find most beneficial to the development of your squad. Consider students who are interested in theatre, leadership and content areas that require students to exhibit above-average analytical skills. A great resource is the campus Gifted and Talented Coordinator. GT students and their parents are often looking for enrichment beyond the classroom.
On-campus recruiting can be quite successful. High school students in team leadership positions can take part of a day out of school to attend a teacher’s class at the junior high. During each available class period, have the junior high students watch a serious and a dramatic performance put on by high school team members. These performances must be pre-screened so as to be appropriate for the younger audience.
Another option is to have two high school debaters put on an impromptu debate, based on a topic selected by the junior high students at the beginning of the class. The format for this debate will need to be tailored to fit within the time available.
If teachers cannot allow students to perform in class, consider having teachers, counselors or principals hand out invitations to an evening meeting where students will be exposed to the same programing. Collect contact information for students who attend and express interest in joining the team, and follow up with the details of upcoming practices and expectations. Keep the tone friendly and inviting.
Practice with junior high students after school or in the evening will be needed, preferably once a week to establish a routine without inflicting burnout on the students or coaches. Recruit high school students currently on your team to help coach their junior high counterparts. This will allow you to divide the students into groups to facilitate the coaching of multiple events simultaneously. Students should be divided into groups based on their areas of interest and the available high school student coaches. If possible, assign two high school students per group. Be flexible and allow the junior high students to change groups as they explore their interests in the activity.
Each student-coach should be given guidance about how to help his or her junior high group advance toward producing a competitive performance. This arrangement allows for the high school coach to act in a supervisory role, and it establishes a positive mentor/mentee relationship between the high school and junior high students. These relationships increase retention and improve overall team morale. And it puts high school students in a position to further develop their understanding of the events they are now coaching, due to the shift in perspective and additional responsibilities they assume when they become the coach.
It is critical to consider when and where you would like your junior high students to compete. Starting with an intra-squad competition modeled on potential contests they could later attend, allows students to feel the pressure of a real contest and receive constructive criticism, while at the same time being a relatively safe space for them to work out their nerves. High school team members can serve as tournament hosts and judges. This is also a great opportunity to include high school novices prior to their first tournament.
Small, relatively close locations are great for introducing younger students to the activity. Junior high students should be encouraged to compete a few times per semester, and to experiment with different events over the course of their competition experience to broaden their exposure to various speech and debate events.
Developing a safe, nurturing culture that invites participation from junior high students can be a great experience for everyone involved. This increases access for students, and in turn can help bolster success both for the current high school squad and the new participants once they reach high school.
Nathaniel Council coaches speech and debate at Pampa (Texas) High School. He has coached for 15 years and is a National Speech and Debate Association (NSDA) Two Diamond Coach.