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Great Debate
Posted 11/21/2016 10:37AM

Republished from Rowland Hall’s 2015-2016 Annual Report

Undebatable Success

The crossroads of debate is a place where students come from all walks of life and leave in every direction, stopping to gain a set of skills to allow them to discover and master the next step.

“Debate is a sandbox,” said Rowland Hall Debate Coach Michael Shackelford. “It’s playful, it’s about curiosity, it’s where you start to interact and learn to appreciate other perspectives and mindsets.”

Ranking as one of the top in the nation, the Rowland Hall debate program has expanded its reach across curriculum and divisions. The Upper School offers debate classes as electives, so interested students mix across grade levels to make lifelong friends at school and across the nation at tournaments.

Rowland Hall and its debate program enjoy a symbiotic relationship: the school’s curriculum equips students with debate-ready skills, and debate fits with the school’s mission to inspire students to lead ethical and productive lives. “The school culture, approach to learning, diversity, and teaching style just fits,” Mr. Shackelford said. Debate fosters collaboration, political literacy, analytical thinking, and empathy. Students research platforms, then construct and deliver original, impassioned arguments.

Debate is a flexible extracurricular in which students are partnered based on a mutual commitment level. Choosing whether to attend a tournament only affects the individual and his or her debate partner—the two-person pod. “No one gets cut from the team, so it’s all about individual goals,” Mr. Shackelford said. “You get out what you put in.”

As much more than a potentially standout line on a college application, debate teaches students how to make a compelling argument, a critical skill for any career. On a deeper level, debate empowers students to organize thoughts and clearly communicate a message.

“Debate doesn’t just capture a certain set of students and deposit them somewhere when they’re done,” Mr. Shackelford explained. “It’s a vehicle, a process, a stepping stone, to accomplish whatever it is you want to accomplish.”

Rowland Hall Debate History

Rowland Hall debate teams have been leaders since 1985. View our debate timeline.

Who is Mikee?

Read Coach Shackelford's profile in Fine Print's People section. 

What do kids get from debate?

Photo: Upper School students holding a practice debate after school in Dr. Nate Kogan's Western Civics classroom.

Certainly, debate helps kids get into elite colleges and teaches them how to argue convincingly, but what else motivates teenagers to willingly stay after school until 5 pm or give up entire weekends to travel to debate tournaments?

Debaters will tell you they make lifelong friends with debaters at tournaments around the country and connect across grade levels at their own institution, an exciting opportunity in high school. Some debaters claim that the skills they build make academics a breeze and life itself becomes a fascinating prism of ideas just waiting to be tackled.

Debate sends kids off into the world with an admirable set of life skills. Debate teaches tolerance, inclusion, and respect for an opposing position. “It’s impossible to be exposed to so many ideas and stay dogmatic,” Rowland Hall Debate Coach Mike Shackelford said. In debate, students research and examine both sides of a controversy to ultimately internalize the meta-lesson that “ethical living begins with understanding and empathy for other points of view,” according to Mr. Shackelford.

Rowland Hall’s mission involves developing students’ character, leadership skills, and sense of community, and this is reflected in the accolades received by our debaters and coaches, past and present. During the 2015-2016 school year, Emily Gordon ’16 won two character awards.

In May of 2015, at the Tournament of Champions, Emily received the Julia Burke award, an honor given to the debater most respected by the community for his or her combination of competitive excellence and outstanding character. The Glenbrook schools in metro Chicago also recognized Emily with the Patrick O’Neill Memorial Award at their national tournament in November.

Distinctive to Rowland Hall is the benefit of a coach who motivates with positive feedback and humor. So when Coach Shackelford won National District Chair of the Year, a coveted leadership award given by the Great Salt Lake debate district, it came as no surprise to those closest to him—his team.

Debate offerings at Rowland Hall

Middle School

  1. Public Speaking begins with games and learning tips to reduce apprehension about speaking formally in public. Students practice a variety of skills and build a foundation for effective argumentation and advocacy. This class is required for sixth graders.
  2. Intro to Debate is for students who want to explore debate in a non-competitive environment. They may choose to participate in the debate team during the third trimester or later in high school. This is an elective for seventh and eighth graders.
  3. Competitive Debate emphasizes participation in formal debates and requires attending at least one of about five team tournaments each season. In addition to practicing constructive, rebuttal, and cross-examination speeches, students develop a variety of tactical skills including evidence comparison, cost-benefit analysis, note-taking, and audience adaptation. Students must take Intro to Debate before they can take Competitive Debate, which is an elective for seventh and eighth graders.

Upper School

  1. Intro to Debate is a one-trimester beginners’ course offered in the fall for students who are new to the high school or have never debated. This class is mainly for students to explore debate.
  2. Public Debate is a core class for students interested in being on the debate team and learning about a variety of accessible and educational topics. This class is for students who want to succeed in debate while also pursuing other extracurricular activities. Students are eligible to compete at all local tournaments and one to two national trips.
  3. Policy Debate is the most advanced class offered to debaters and is for students who have prioritized debate above other activities. The class includes topic lectures, research sessions, and practice debates and is held after school every day. Students are eligible for all local tournament opportunities and a variety of national trips.

Difference Between Policy Debate and Public Forum Debate  

Public Forum (PF) is often compared to the familiar example of a presidential debate. Debaters must make persuasive and logical arguments in a manner that is accessible to a wide variety of audiences. Students present cases, engage in rebuttal and refutation, and participate in crossfires—opportunities to question the opposing team. PF students debate in front of judges who may lack formal debate training, so the ability to persuade the average citizen is a central component to success. Additionally, PF focuses on debating resolutions concerning ever-evolving current events, a format that exposes students to a variety of topics during a singular competitive season.

Policy (CX) is a more intricate and detailed form of debate. CX focuses on a controversy surrounding government policy and teams propose specific plans. Because the topic remains the same for the entire academic year, students rely on the depth of their research and their use of advanced argumentation theory. CX debate is also known for technical jargon and rapid rate of delivery, with advanced debaters speaking at rates up to 350 words per minute. Both PF and CX are conducted by teams of two people alternating speeches for their side, either affirming or negating their topic. (Source: National Speech and Debate Association)

You Belong at Rowland Hall


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Salt Lake City, Utah 84108
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