Signature Program Adapts to Changes with Resilience

Barstow Communications
Students in Barstow's signature debate program returned to the national tournament circuit in October — online, at home, and uniquely prepared for the challenges of a COVID-19 environment. Coaches say their students adapted successfully because they know how to apply 21st century skills including problem solving, critical thinking and collaboration.
Pandemic precautions moved major 2020 high school debate tournaments online, so instead of traveling together to regional competitions in Illinois, Iowa, Oklahoma and Texas, members of the Barstow squad have been competing via Zoom this fall. In an activity where strong bonds are formed when the team travels together, students have transformed disappointment into an opportunity to collaborate, solve problems and overcome obstacles with resolve.  

"Debate can actually thrive in an online environment," varsity coach Gabe Cook says. "COVID's been with us long enough that our students have adapted to the reality, and they've changed their mindset."

Collaboration and Communication
The squad had its first experience with the online format in April, when senior Jacqueline Tingle and Amanda Munsell '20 competed in the Tournament of Champions hosted by the University of Kentucky. "That experience let us know, 'Oh, we can do this,'" Cook said.

Though they encountered challenges using some of Zoom's functions and cell phones during TOC debates, the team started working immediately on techniques to communicate effectively while attending online summer debate camps that built the foundation for this fall's season. Senior Phoebe Brous attended the University of Michigan's Seven Week Seniors Program, a grueling eight hours a day, five days a week.

"The largest takeaways are that debate this year will have to be more team-oriented to still be fun, considering that we can no longer see our friends from other schools in person," she said. "But I appreciate the new opportunity to create online community. We had an online mini-camp and we have online work nights weekly." 

Taking a Breath
Mr. Cook says Barstow's technology has simplified hybrid debate classes where students practice both in the debate room and from home. At school, students adhere to social distancing guidelines and wear masks at all times — even as they speed through their arguments. 

"Luckily, part of learning to debate already involves talking a lot about how we breathe," assistant coach Lucia Scott says. "To achieve the rapid rate of delivery required of our national competition style, students must practice speaking at a fast pace. This requires them to breathe in certain ways to ensure they are being as efficient with their air flow as possible. A lot of the advice we give would look right at home in a swimming or singing practice."

Students are also used to controlling their volume for different-sized spaces, so the masks just add one more factor to consider when adjusting their volume.

"Because of how fast our students talk, they've also learned to enunciate well. This makes understanding students in masks surprisingly easy," says Ms. Scott. Mr. Cook agrees. "It's really not a big deal. It may be  a bit of a nuisance at times, but it hasn't slowed us down at all." 

Adaptation During Competition
Senior Noah Waldman says the biggest challenge he's encountered in the online environment is speaking into his computer, rather than a person who is in the same room with him. 

"Typically, it is incentivized to use your computer very little during the final speech to show that everything you are saying is specific to the round and not pre-written, but now, it is difficult to look at your paper while you are also speaking directly into the microphone," he said.

Waldman successfully applied all his spring and summer practice during the season opened, the Trevian Tournament, in mid-October. He and partner Meghana Lakkireddy, senior, placed in the top 32 among 106 entries in the TOC Division. Their 4-2 preliminary record earned them an appearance in the double-octo elimination round. 

An Opportunity to Compete at a New Level 
Though his team would prefer to travel to tournaments together, Cook says there is an upside to the virtual season. Previously, MSHSAA travel restrictions prevented the team from attending some of its preferred national tournaments. In online debate, travel restrictions don’t apply. 

"The kids knew at the end of last year that this was how it was going to be," he says. "Even though we can't go in person, we are able to attend what we think are some better tournaments." Those include competitions in Chicago and New York and a prestigious tournament hosted by the University of Michigan. 

"That's the best part of online debate," Waldman agreed.

Middle School Gets Online Experience, Too
It's not only the upper school debaters who are learning new strategies and skills during the online competition season. Barstow's middle school debate team participated in its first virtual competition on Oct. 22.

Students  turned in "an excellent performance at the first DEBATE-Kansas City tournament of the season," Coach Gabe Cook said. The team already has nine consecutive DEBATE-KC City Championships. In the 2020-2021 opener, the team competed in the Student Congress event, and won eight of the ten awards for which they were eligible.

Valuable Lessons
Mr. Cook says the challenges and opportunities presented during this debate season have already taught middle and upper school students and coaches valuable lessons.

"I think what we're taking aways from this as a debate team are the lessons everyone is learning — to appreciate what we had before, and to appreciate the opportunities we still have ahead of us."
    • Senior Phoebe Brous practices breathing techniques during masked, socially-distanced debate class.

    • Senior Noah Waldman is learning to look into his laptop camera and his notes at the same time, an adaptation to the in-person debate style to which he was accustomed.

    • Award winning debate coach Gabe Cook says students have found opportunities amid a challenging season.

    • Coach Lucia Scott says the techniques students are learning aren't unlike those a swimmer would practice.