There’s an Argument to be Made for Middle School Debate

There’s an Argument to be Made for Middle School Debate
Beth Meleski

Anyone who cares for a teen or tween would probably agree that kids this age are experts at presenting a strong case when they want things like extra screen time, a new puppy, or fewer veggies on their dinner plate. But there’s a big difference between advocating for oneself with one’s parents and marshaling a well-constructed, researched argument for or against a topic, and then presenting that argument in public. It was these skills that were on display when Saddle River Day School hosted a Garden State Debate League Tournament on December 3rd.

We all have opinions, some strongly held and some less so. As we have seen in recent years, the way these points of view are communicated makes a great difference in the way they are received and we are perceived. This is why learning the art of debate is an important life skill for students at Saddle River Day School, so they can effectively carry out the mission of the school to “become a caring and ethical contributor to society” by, as debate coach and Middle School history teacher, Radley Glasser puts it, “developing and articulating their own thoughts, but also considering opposing opinions critically and empathetically, while engaging in civil, yet substantive, discourse.”

During debate prep, our students had to carefully prepare to take a position and then defend it on topics that included: the value of homework, the influence of TikTok, and raising the minimum wage in New Jersey. The trick is that our students didn’t know which position they would be asked to defend. Perhaps in their real life, they believe that TikTok is a valuable tool for sharing information and education. But during the debate, they might be required to argue exactly the opposite, a valuable lesson in seeing and understanding the other side. Speaking in teams of three, the students participated in four rounds of debate with 20 minutes or less to organize and rehearse their arguments in between rounds. Any of us who has rehearsed in front of the mirror for days before we make a request for a raise or job promotion can marvel at how quickly these 5th through 8th graders planned and prosecuted their cases. 

This was the first ever debate tournament for SRDS middle schoolers Ari, Praadhyumn, Gaia, Evan, Colton, Cece, Noah L., Krishang, Matthew, and Brett but they were competing against over 200 seasoned debaters from schools like The Hun School in Princeton, Broad Street School, and Cedar Hill Prep. They should all be proud that each of their teams scored a victory in their individual rounds. It takes a great deal of courage to speak in a public forum with conviction and clarity. It also takes confidence and skill. These Middle School students should be proud that they are developing an expertise many adults will never even try to tackle. Congratulations to the Saddle River Day Middle School debate team and best wishes in your next tournament. But be warned, even your recently developed, superior skills of persuasion probably won’t get you that puppy.