Imagine a world where teens aren’t buried in their iPads or head-down on their phones. Where they discuss well-researched opinions in person, not via emoji or Snapchat, and interrupt only after asking permission.
No, this isn’t an etiquette academy. It’s a reality at places like Debate Camp, a Canadian summer program for fifth- through eleventh-graders that opened last year at Roxbury Latin School. It’s one of many new summer debate camps in the area, which also include Lumos and Lexington Debate Institute.
Parents appreciate the camps because they help kids build real-world skills like critical thinking. Students like them because they build self-confidence at an age when they’re ripe to argue — in an era when there’s plenty to argue about.
Josh Cohen, coach of Newton South High School’s debate team and the Massachusetts Speech and Debate League’s chair of debate, says that 181 students debated at their state championship in 2013. This year, the total count was 321.
“By this measure, growth has been nearly 80 percent in five years,” says Cohen, who was a debater back in the 1980s at Lexington High School.
“Parents want their children to critically think about their own beliefs and express them in a highly structured fashion. Parents want their children to engage in dialogue that isn’t aggressive or conflicted, which is what we see a lot in politics at all levels,” explains Debate Club program coordinator Sonia Pavel, a sophomore at Brandeis University and a champion debater in her native Romania.
Camps teach various debate styles with their own specific rules, such as policy, public forum, and parliamentary, but general structures apply: students get allotted speaking times; opinions need to be supported by evidence; and free-for-all interrupting is a no-no.
At the weeklong Debate Camp in West Roxbury, kids in grades 5 and up arrive each morning at 8:30 a.m. and receive an age-appropriate topic to debate.
“All the topics relate to their lives, like supporting vegetarianism or banning contact sports,” says director Nick Szymanis.
Campers engage in several rounds of debate during the day, with breaks for snacks, lunch, outdoor activities, and debate-style games like “Debate Idol.”
In a world where kids are often beleaguered by social media and the news, it’s a safe space. Here, procedural tact seems almost quaint.
For instance, students can’t talk over one another. According to camp rules, says Pavel, every speaker has eight assigned minutes to hold the floor during debate. If someone wants to intervene, they have to ask for permission and get approval by the speaker. Imagine if that happened on Twitter?
“I think this is one of the safest environments when it comes to privilege and discrimination,” Pavel says. “One of the premises of debate is that we’re all intellectual equals.”
It helps kids look at the world in more nuanced ways. Because they’re assigned topics, sometimes they have to argue in favor of issues they don’t agree with (and against issues they do).
“We feel that kids, if they can appreciate other points of view, they can stay away from any kind of tribal mentality of, ‘I’m right, you’re wrong, this is how my family thinks.’ We hit it hard during the election year. We encountered things in our US camps that we didn’t see as much in the Canadian camps — really hardened views,” Szymanis says.
The camp launched in Boston last year and costs $495 for five days. Szymanis says they sold out immediately, and he’s exploring opening a second location north of Boston.
In this spirit, Lumos and Lexington Debate also opened within the past two years. At the two-week Lumos camp, where students have flown in from Europe to attend, kids in grades six through nine research and debate age-appropriate topics like cats versus dogs or waffles versus pancakes; older ones move on to trickier issues, such as whether social media is good or bad. There are campuses in towns such as Acton, Lexington, and Newton; tuition is $1,400.
“People are understanding the importance of effective communication. Before, a lot of people were focusing on hard skills like math and science. More and more, there’s a bridge between learning hard skills and effectively using those skills in different contexts,” says camp CEO Jessica Sun, a 2017 Lexington High graduate.
Not every camper is a future lawyer or politician, either. Sun says that many parents enroll their shy children for a self-confidence boost. The camp runs games, such as “Like, Uh, Um,” where campers speak for two minutes without using filler words, talking about anything they want.
Other times, students sit in circles and contribute two to three sentences of a story, round-robin style. Staffers are high school students and competitive debaters.
“We design it to be that way because we think one of the biggest barriers to learning public speaking is intimidation,” Sun says. “If you have instructors who can relate and seem more like an older brother or sister, students are more likely to let down their walls and feel more comfortable.”
Sun’s classmate Zachary Schnall graduated from Lexington High School in 2016, where he won debating awards. Now he’s a debater at Harvard University, and he also runs the Lexington Debate Institute in the summer. The camp enrolls rising sixth to ninth graders for one week ($850) and two weeks ($1350); they also offer financial aid.
It teaches argument structure, research, and presentation skills.
“We think of these as skills that are transferrable into daily life, school life, social life,” Schnall says.
And, now, those skills matter more than ever.
“Having research skills might sound trivial, but I think never taking anything at face value is a super-important skill,” Schnall says.
Parents agree. Miho Kurata-Anthony enrolled her eight-grader, Nolan, in Lumos’s Newton camp after hearing about it from fellow parents. She liked that it would help him to speak more and take positions on issues, even if he didn’t agree.
“I wanted to give him a chance to get used to speaking,” she says. “I know that, unless you’ve had a chance to practice, it doesn’t come naturally.”
Newton South sophomore Jessica Wu attended Lumos before her freshman year.
“My mom signed me up, because debate teaches you about public speaking and helps you form arguments and become a more well-rounded person. I know a lot of parents have that thought process as well,” Wu says.
Now she’s a debater on the powerhouse Newton South team, where “people are flocking to join,” she says. She hopes the skills will give her an edge in college and beyond.
“Certainly, now the world is more competitive. And the world is smaller. I think that’s a good thing, but it’s not enough just to be good. You need to move your ideas,” says Cohen, the Newton South coach.
Still, Cohen says that the growth in debate is often attributable to the expanding size of strong existing programs, such as at Newton South or Acton-Boxborough. He hopes that new schools and students will become attracted to debate, too.
“Relatively few programs have coaches employed by the school system, so new programs start only when there’s an interested student willing to take a lot of initiative and put in a lot of work,” he says, either by teaching peers or recruiting interested family members to coach.
The Boston Debate League tries to ameliorate that problem in urban areas, providing coaching support and stipends for inner-city students. The program focuses on policy debate, a style that focuses on one policy question for the duration of the academic year, sharpening students’ research, analytical, and speaking skills. Students also cross-examine one another, and a judge (or a panel) determines a winner based on the quality of arguments. Students need to be on-point. And they usually are.
The program started with volunteers in 2005 and worked with just three schools; today, the staffed program reaches 40 city schools. Today, the Boston Latin School is the only Boston public school with a debate team not run through the league. The league hosts both English and Spanish competitions.
Program manager Roger Nix visits roughly 15 schools every other week, training and supporting coaches. The league provides a stipend of between $2,800 and $3,300 to coaches and organizes tournaments.
“Debate used to be this hallowed activity, found in elite schools,” says executive director Mike Wasserman. “But I think there’s been a real push, and a pull, for students to be able to wrestle with real-world issues and strengthen their voice. Now we have a community of 1,000 middle and high school students researching real policy issues.”
The program was crucial for Carolyn De Jesus Martinez, an 11th grader at Boston International High School, originally from the Dominican Republic. She attends weekly practices and monthly tournaments, subsidized by the league.
Last year, she debated in Spanish. This year, she’s part of the English-speaking team.
“It improved my speaking skills. In my English class, we were doing a lot of protesting against injustices, and our teacher said that one way to use our voice for things we believe in is debate,” she says. “I’m the type of person who really likes to be part of movements and advocate for things that are right. Debating is a way to do that.”
Kara Baskin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.