Jeffrey Miller portrays his introduction to high school debate as a happy accident. He signed up for his first debate class at his south metro Atlanta high school because he was looking for something that wouldn’t be too demanding. “I heard it was an easy A,” he joked.

But debate turned out to mean a lot more to Miller than just something to fill out his schedule. He was hooked. “I took debate all four years,” he said. “I really caught the fever. It’s all I did in high school.”

Marist School debate coach Jeffery Miller,
center, with debate team members Sophie Verska, left, and Will Sjostrom, right, with trophies the
team has won. (Joe Earle)

And it stuck. Now, he’s director of speech and debate at Marist School and coaches the school’s team, which travels the country for competitions in places spread from New York to New Orleans and Florida to Minnesota.

Dozens of big silver trophies Marist’s team has collected during his tenure now gleam side-by-side in Miller’s classroom, and he’s saving room for more. Last year, Marist’s debate team placed third in a national competition, he said. They took part in 18 competitions altogether last year, he said, and they will compete in 11 competitions by Thanksgiving this year.

Jordanna Sternberg, director of debate at The Westminster Schools, got her start as a high school freshman in Massachusetts back in the 1980s. She signed up for junior varsity debate only because a friend wanted company for that first meeting. At the end of the year, Sternberg made the varsity team; her friend didn’t. She, too, was hooked. “I loved it,” she said.

Her affection pays off. Her Westminster students, like the students at Marist, have argued their way to trophies at competitions around the country. In 2017, a pair of Westminster seniors took first place in a national championship competition in Utah. This year, Westminster debaters plan to take part in about 20 competitions, Sternberg said.

Dunwoody debate team members show trophies they collected in competition. (Special)

Coaches of the year

Sternberg and Miller each have been named “debate coach of the year” by the Georgia Forensics Coaches Association, Miller in 2012 and Sternberg in 2018, according to the organization’s website.

Other north metro schools, such as Dunwoody High School, Pace Academy, Galloway School and Lovett School, also field debate teams. Last year, about 70 Georgia schools participated in the forensic coaches association’s invitational tournaments, which drew 4,100 entries, according to Mario Herrera, the organization’s executive chair and the debate teacher and team coach at Grady High School in Atlanta. Three other organizations, Herrera said, also promote debate and speech events: the Atlanta Urban Debate League, the Georgia Independent School Association and the Georgia High School Association.

The forensic coaches association promotes competition in various forms of debate and various kinds of public speaking. It calls itself a “forensics” organization because it includes various public speaking events and the word meant an argumentative exercise before taking on the more common meaning of applying scientific analysis to police cases.

In debates, competitors go heard-to-head to argue different sides of issues. In speech contests, individual competitors may present opinions, or they may do other kinds of public speaking, such as giving humorous talks.

Marist debaters Will Sjostrom, left, and Sophie Verska, both seniors, discuss strategy. (Joe Earle)

‘Speech is special to me’

Dunwoody High junior Morgan Underhill took part in two different presentations during speech competitions last year. In one, she portrayed the actress Vivien Leigh of “Gone with the Wind” fame in “Vivien Leigh’s Last Press Conference.” In the other, she was one of a pair who took the top award in the state by presenting “Malcom X Jefferson Elementary Proudly Presents a Fifth-Grade production of ‘A Chorus Line.’” She portrayed five different characters in that one, she said.

She also takes part in school plays, but says “speech is special to me. You’re so nervous, but you get up there and you get to embody somebody else. It’s not you. It’s showing what you can do.”

David Gay, director of theater and speech at Dunwoody, said he takes teams to nine or 10 meets a year and two national competitions. Gay, who has been named the GFCA’s speech coach of the year, says speech teaches students discipline, to be able to think on their feet, to be confident and to be competitive. “We’re teaching life skills,” he said.

Westminster Schools debater Holland Bald, left, and his partner, George Alford, research a topic for debate. (Joe Earle)

“It’s really exciting to see the kids the first time they go [to a competition],” he said. “They’ve got their tails between their legs. The first round is kind of dramatic, but they come back and … get more and more confident and you really get to see the kids grow stronger in their skins. That’s very exciting for a teacher.”

Debate requires different skills. Herrera argues it requires “critical thinking, empathy, writing, logic, listening, argumentation, introspection, community engagement and sportsmanship, just to name a few.”

In what are called “policy debates,” two-member teams research a topic and prepare both pro and con positions. They don’t know which side they’ll argue until just before the debate begins. Just like in a football game, the side a team attacks or defends is determined by a coin flip. Policy debaters stay with a single topic throughout the year. This year, they’re arguing about U.S. policy on arms sales.

“You’ve got to learn about topics and learn about them in depth,” Sternberg said. “It takes the ability to engage in critical thinking with other students.”

Jordana Sternberg, debate coach at the Westminster Schools, hoists her Georgia Debate Coach of the Year plaque. (Special)

‘You have to think fast’

Debaters also must learn to think on their feet, said Marist debate team members Will Sjostrom and Sophie Verska, both seniors. When an opponent presents a lot of points in favor of a position, your team has to knock them all down in the time allotted.

“If you only have three minutes to prepare … you really have to think fast,” Verska said.

“It helps with your self-confidence,” Sjostrom said. “If you have to give another speech at school or go to a job interview, you’ll know how to talk. It prepares you a lot for the real world.”

Once a competition starts, debaters on one side try to make as many arguments as they can and then their opponents try, in turn, to rebut them all.

Debaters learn to speak quickly in order to get in as many points as possible.

Westminster Schools debater Holland Bald, right, with his partner last year, Chris Rascoe, at left, show awards they won. (Special)

Westminster junior Holland Bald, who with his partner ranked 10th in the country last year, according to Sternberg, said his favorite part is the research. Debaters must know a lot about a subject in order to be prepared to present an array of arguments or to answer any specific argument their opponents may offer.

“It’s a very unique think to try to learn everything about a topic,” Bald said. And he likes being able to see how arguments work when presented to the judges. “I like the immediate payoff, when you prepare and see it pay off.”

To prepare for their debates, students put in hours of extra work. They often miss classes while traveling to distant debates, so they must make up other work, too. Some attend summer camps, usually at colleges, where they learn more about debating skills and research. But it’s worth the extra effort, they say.

“It’s really fun. It’s really rewarding, I guess is the right word,” said Westminster senior Sara Ann Brackett. “There’s a lot of payoff.”

No argument there.

Joe Earle

Joe Earle is Editor-at-Large. He has more than 30-years of experience with daily newspapers, including the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and was Managing Editor of Reporter Newspapers.