Monday, November 21, 2011

Master debaters

I know I haven't talked at all about my teaching career in Antofagasta so far, and that has mostly been for professional reasons--I don't want to use my blog as a place to air petty complaints or to comment too much on the lives of Chilean minors. I promise I'll offer a retrospective on the semester soon. In the meantime, here's a quick glimpse into what has been by far the most rewarding and validating aspect of my professorial life: coaching the English Debate Team.

The program I work for, English Opens Doors, has a variety of initiatives to encourage the use of English. One such initiative are the English debates. Much like in debates anywhere, students in teams of 4-6 are asked to prepare both sides of a topic, proposition and opposition, to present a compelling argument for a side that will be assigned to them at random on the day of competition. As is also the case in all debates, they are expected to treat their opponents with respect, to make rebuttals in response to their arguments, and to work together to present a cohesive argument and conclusion. However, unlike other debates, my students are required to do all of this higher-order thinking in a second langague: English!

That's where I come in. My job as coach was two-fold: to serve as a native-speaking English expert, as well as a source of guidance for structuring and presenting arguments. The former comes naturally, but the latter requires a bit more thought. Luckily, I had several years of university experience as a writing center tutor to call on to help me help students group their ideas into topics with a logical flow and conclusion. As for the rhetoric, poise and straight-up acting that sucessful debating requires? Well, that part was a learning process for me, too.

We started with a local, city-wide competition. We placed second and advanced easily to the next round, taking notes on the strengths and weaknesses of other teams to improve our own performance. In the next round of competition, we took first in the city. Here we are at the final awards ceremony, with our victory certificates:

As the stakes increased each round so did our practice hours, our English accents and expertise, and the presentations of our arguments. We gave up Saturdays to research our points and drill our speeches. The students became accustomed to (if no less amused by) the ridiculous faces I made in response to their mistakes or to dispell their nervousness, the gestures I used to teach syllable emphasis, the silly mnemonics I used to drill difficult pronunciation into their brains (example: "her ass meant so much to me....but when I slapped it, she called 'harassement'").When it came time for the regional finals, the students debated alongside a table of trophies, and it was clear that our team wanted that gold, first place cup more than anyone else.

Here's my team on stage, listening to the opposing argument and contemplating their rebuttals:

When it came time to announce the results, we were anxious with anticipation. The fourth place team was called and invited up to accept their certificates, than the third place team. As we waited to hear the second place team, we all joined hands, passing our energy through clenched, shaking fingers along the line...

"In second place, the team from...."

Not us.

Cheers, exhilieration, joy--we had won the region, and we would be sent on an all-expenses-paid trip to the inter-zonal finals in the beach city of Iquique, in the north.

"And in First Place...Colégio Inglés San José!"

Before we started preparing our new arguments, we took a few well-earned moments of pause for a trophy photoshoot...

Including my favorite of the day, a satirical shot of the faithful American volunteer with debate cup and notebook as Lady Liberty, surrounded by her faithful "huddled masses yearning to breathe free--oh yeah, and beat the crap out of the other teams."

While stimulating, our weekend in balmy Iquique a few hurried weeks later was hardly a vacation, and we didn't even have enough of a break from the tension of debates to visit the beach. However, we lived, worked and ate (meal after meal of rich foods smothered in cream sauces) in a beautiful five-star hotel that was literally constructed half over the ocean, so we were at least able to enjoy ocean sunsets from the windows and the noise of the waves that lulled us to sleep at night.

Here is one of my students, our summary speaker, practicing in our hotel room at night. Charasmatic and a strong English speaker, he was one of the strongest assets to our team and my partner in rebuttals (we always had ten minutes between the speeches and the summary to hash-out rebuttals and final arguments together). However, he also had a tendancy towards hubris and snarkiness that begat what soon became team mantras:
"confident, not cocky,"
and "rebut the idea, not the speaker"

After a while, the pressure started to get to the students. They slept little and ate less, and a few of them started to crack:
The morning before our debate, we were terrified (well, not really. But the poor guys were all so stone-faced that I forced them to take some exaggerated photos to break the tension):
The students had to debate three times on the first day, and by dinner we were all exhausted. The home team from Iquique quickly emerged as our most serious competition. They were impressive, but with their disrespectful sneers and open mocking of the weaker teams, they were easy to hate--especially after one of them stole one of our proposition's lines word-for-word and used it against the very student that had written it when we argued oppostion later on.

The mimicry was slight enough that there was no clear recourse available, although we were all, of course, frustrated. The affected student was ashen-faced and angry, visibly shaken by the betrayal. I felt like a parent later as I tried to calm him, brushing aside his indignant complaints ("but miss! they cheated!") and trying to focus on what mattered: sucking it up, sticking it out and being satisfied in the knoweldge that even if they had said the same thing we did, we had said it better.  

We finished that day in a close second place to the Iquique team, and with a little time to regroup and recollect our thoughts and arguments before the final face-off the next day.

By far the best part of debate team was the opportunity to work closely and in a mentoring role with a group of dedicated students. By and large, my day-to-day efforts in the classroom go unappreciated, and it's difficult to discern if the work that I do with the students here actually makes any sort of a difference in their language skills. However, with the debate students the improvements were palpable and the appreciation evident. Because of their age and the more casual nature of our relationship, I was free to joke with them, teaching them slang and somewhat risque puns (the title of this post is in their honor, for example), imitating English accents, and sharing American culture. By the time we got to the last night, I was fiercely proud of them and invested in their victories, and though I told them, of course, that the results of the next day didn't matter, I wanted to show up the Iquique team as badly as any of them.

And in the end...we did! In fact, we blew them out of the water. Our arguments were clearer, our rebuttals more cutting, and our poise and presentation more professional. And perhaps above all, we were a unified team, supportive and proud of one another--a fact that the judges praised as they presented the kids with more tangible tokens of congratulations: medals, digital cameras, fountain pens, English novels.

We arrived at the airport later that afternoon for our return flight feeling like celebrities. The kids played paparazzi with their prizes and the professor cradled the trophy as gently as if it were a baby.
And me? Well, I got my medal, too, but the best prize was a re-shoot of our previous victory photo, this time in front of the more Statue of Liberty-appropriate Iquique coastline:

Update: embarrassingly, this photo actually ended up making it into the local paper! I hope people don't take it the wrong way :-/ Taken out of the context of our joke, at best it looks like I'm getting all the credit for the victory, and at the worst, it looks a bit like gringa worship. Hopefully people have a good sense of humor!

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