Speech and Debate Adapts to Virtual Environment

Speech and Debate Virtual Competition

As the COVID-19 pandemic set in, the end of the 2019-2020 school year became a time of turmoil for educators and students alike. As the Assistant Director of Laurel’s Speech and Debate team, one of my biggest questions was what would happen to the National Speech and Debate Association’s (NSDA) National Tournament in June, which was supposed to be held in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Would we be able to travel? Would it be cancelled? Would it go virtual? With the precedent of virtual tournaments already a reality in the Speech and Debate world, the NSDA did in fact decide to host its National Tournament online, giving our four Laurel qualifiers the opportunity to compete from the safety of their homes in Ohio. 

Speech and Debate is an activity that is uniquely suited to adapt to our new socially-distanced reality. Since the purpose of each and every event is to communicate, we are able to change our method and medium from face-to-face to Zoom. With the continued health and safety risks in congregating hundreds of students and adults for competitions, our learnings from Nationals are carrying us into our regular season this school year here in Northeast Ohio. 

Here is how we handled virtual Nationals:

  1. We coached via Zoom. This was important because it gave us and the students experience communicating in new ways. If we had practiced in person and competed online, we would not have had the experience before the competition in understanding how the online platform changes the ways we need to speak and present. 
  2. We created online spaces between rounds for the students and coaches to congregate. Whether that meant opening Zoom rooms to imitate how we would gather in school cafeterias or using platforms like Remind to text each other quick updates and encouragements, this was important for maintaining that team feeling while we were each in our own spaces. 
  3. We shared updates on our social media platforms in real-time. You can follow the Laurel Speech and Debate team on Facebook and Twitter, which we update regularly during our competitive season. This allowed the larger team and the entire Laurel community to rally behind our four debaters who were competing at Nationals, and during our regular season, we get to celebrate progress and successes as they occur for our entire team. 

With these key steps in mind, we launched our 2020-2021 season ready to succeed in competition and continue to build community as a team. In September, we held our recruiting information sessions online during lunchtime, similar to the lunch meetings we would hold in school in a normal year. In October, as usual, we began our after-school practice schedule to prepare for our first competitions at the end of the month. Holding our practices online allows us, as coaches, to see what the judges will see, and it allows our students to gain experience speaking and debating in the medium of competition. 

As for results…we did really well at Nationals. Our Public Forum Debaters Sarah Hatem ‘21 and Abby McGowan ‘21 finished in the Top 40 nationally, World Schools Debater Jane Jusko ‘21 finished in the Top 16, and World Schools Debater Ria Raj ‘21 finished as the international runner up.

Still in virtual mode, our first few tournaments of 2020-21 in Cleveland have also been successful! Sarah and Abby already have a tournament championship behind them, Ria has won first place in International Extemporaneous Speaking, seniors Katherine Cassese ‘21 and Barbara Yang ‘21 have taken 2nd Place in Policy Debate at two tournaments, Maggie Chen ‘23 has also taken 2nd Place in Lincoln Douglas Debate, and four of our novices have already placed in regular-season tournaments: Aya Pinhasi ‘24 in United States Extemporaneous, Madie Malbasa ‘24 in Original Oratory, and Kaitlyn Ernst ‘24 and Caitlin Ludwig ‘23 in Lincoln Douglas debate. We have also seen our Congressional Debaters Reema Gupta ‘22 and Esther Ling ‘23 earn awards at multiple competitions, Abby Preston ‘23 has earned recognition in Lincoln Douglas Debate, and Ria Gupta ‘23 has placed in International Extemporaneous. With more tournaments and learning to come, even more students will join this impressive list of top competitors in our District! 

One of my greatest goals as a coach is to instill confidence, professionalism, and presence in each of the students I coach. I want Laurel School Speech and Debate Team members and alumnae to own their expertise in the world and feel self-assured expressing themselves in settings from the college classroom to the professional boardroom. Whether we do this in person or via Zoom, the students will learn valuable skills that will serve them for the rest of their lives, and I am thrilled to be coaching this team through our digital season.