Skip to main content

Midvale Journal

Middle-schoolers debate in-person, adhering to safety precautions

Dec 14, 2020 11:23AM ● By Julie Slama

Jordan High’s Isaiah Cardenaz judges oratory competitor Parker Lassig, a Mt. Jordan eighth-grader, as Albion Middle eighth-grader McKenna Jones waits her turn. (Julie Slama/City Journals)

By Julie Slama | [email protected]

Indian Hills eighth-grader Gabe Lowe was ready to face his competitors in late October as he went head-to-head in Canyons School District’s first in-person middle school debate and speech tournament of the school year.

“I like debating and get most out of it going against others,” said the three-year veteran. “There are big issues this year, like police reform, COVID-19 and topics that relate more to Utah than previous years. I’m able to have better speeches and facts and glad I have a chance to compete.”

With so many extracurricular activities curtailed during the COVID-19 pandemic, District English Language Arts Specialist Leslie Robinett said she was glad to give students an opportunity to compete in one. As the school year began, Robinett met with debate and speech coaches at all seven Canyons middle schools where it was decided as long as it’s safely possible, the tournaments will be held.

However, there are a few differences, such as teams are separated by school in different locations to keep them in smaller groups. Each round is posted in several places and announcements were provided over the intercom to reduce congregating. There also was not an in-person end-of-tournament celebration and awards ceremony as the results with medals and trophies were given to coaches with a videotaped announcement the following week.

“Our coaches felt that there would be a lot more social distancing than during school as we could really spread out,” she said, adding that holding it online was discussed. “The teachers also felt that holding it in person is important as when students talk in front of a judge is different than talking to a computer.” 

Even transporting the students to the tournament site of Indian Hills Middle was reviewed and Albion’s and Eastmont’s teams took two school buses to ensure there was enough social distancing.

The tournament size also was restricted, with no out-of-district teams invited. As it turned out, for various reasons, only Indian Hills, Eastmont, Mt. Jordan and Albion’s full teams competed, along with a few from Draper Park, reducing the number to about 250 students. 

Sanitizer was abundant and concessions were eliminated. 

“We’re trying to provide the opportunity as much as normal while making it as safe as possible,” Robinett said, adding however, the elementary tournament would be judged by video submissions this year.

Mt. Jordan eighth-grader Parker Lassig appreciates competing at the tournament.

“It’s fun to voice my opinions in my speech,” he said, adding that he participated the two previous years.

Albion coach Emma Coates took about 35 students to the tournament, most who are in her course, which she is providing on the Canvas learning management platform.

“It’s made me rethink our system, and make positive changes,” said the eight-year-coach. “In the past, I would teach the basics; this year, I have assignments that force them to learn skills that may have seen optional in the past and weren’t always practiced.”

She said that many of those are skills that can translate to other classes and to life.

“One thing I love most about debate is that so many skills relate to the rest of their lives—the quality of their thoughts, researching, expressing disagreement, being organized, learning to be part of a team—there’s so much,” said Coates, who judged the online national middle school tournament this past summer. 

She also is making students understand that mask-wearing doesn’t limit communication, but gives them a chance to convey it more besides through words.

“We learn about and practice body expression,” she said. “We have our debaters practice at a distance from each other, but speaking up louder. We’ll have a specific lesson on enunciation and on learning about hand gestures before the next tournament.”

Coates said that the in-person Canyons tournament went smoothly.

“Things went so much better than we thought it would,” she said. “We didn’t have as many middle school students even with the teams that competed because some students are being quarantined, but it gave them motivation to really research hard and practice. They had the fire and passion and that wouldn’t be there if it was virtual. I asked the kids about it and without hesitation, 100% yes, they wanted the competition and the feedback was overwhelmingly positive.”

Indian Hills coach Gage Pulsifer said about 30 members of his 103-member team were quarantined.

“It has been tough as some kids haven’t had as much time together this year,” he said, referring to the week delay start to the school year as well as quarantine time. “We had some kids really want to participate so they were able to take the quick test (for COVID-19) and able to compete in the tournament. They spend time working on their speeches and research, so the tournament gives them a sense of accomplishment.”

While quarantined, many students would virtually connect with those in the classroom and debate one another.

“We had a little delay, but it’s students wanting to be part of this. We’re also learning that it’s taking a little longer to get ready as we didn’t finish last school year (because of the soft closure of schools at the outbreak of the pandemic),” the four-year coach said. 

Pulsifer said after watching the initial presidential debate, students have appreciated what they’ve learned in class: “There are two sides of an argument and that they need to listen and present the civil discussion with facts so they can back up what is being said.”

As students watch the news and talk about current events such as social unrest and voting, they also need to understand there are different viewpoints based on different life experiences.

“We need to understand that the world is not black and white, we can’t be polar opposed. We need to find that middle ground,” he said.

At Eastmont, Corey Jensen and Cody West coached about 60 kids at the tournament and said that they, too, also had class discussions about the first presidential debate.

“They know that’s not how a debate should go, but many of the topics during this year—the pandemic, social unrest, Black Lives Matter, voting rights and the importance of democracy, and others—is really inspiring students,” said seven-year coach Jensen, adding that he was a little surprised that the tournament was able to be held when so many activities have been canceled during the pandemic. “It’s important, especially right now, we need a sense of community and give our students a chance to be involved as part of team and be able to connect to school,” he said. “A lot of students play sports and have those opportunities, but a lot of others don’t, and debate gives them those same values.”

West, who has been co-head coach for three years, said he was happy the tournament was held and that even with the changes to the tournament, students were excited to take part.

“We still had the same vibe on the way here, the same sense of nervousness,” he said. “It created a sense of normalcy for the most part and that’s needed; the kids are excited.”

As long as conditions allow, the next Canyons tournaments will be held Dec. 17, March 18, 2021 and April 29, 2021. The middle school state tournament is slated for May 6, 2021.