How to Maximize Your Time at Debate Camp!

This next installment of the Curriculum Corner is to get to know some of our instructors better and see their insights into how to maximize your time at debate camp this summer! Today, we’re talking with five VBI staff members about their thoughts in improving at debate camp, each sharing their unique perspective on camp.

Priya Kukreja debated for four years at Millard North High School in Omaha, Nebraska. This will be her first year as an instructor at VBI.

Raffi Piliero debated for Harrison High School in New York for four years. He attended VBI as a student twice and this will be his first year as an instructor at VBI.

Margaret Purcell debated for Northland Christian School in Houston, TX for four years. She attended VBI as a student and this will be her first year as an instructor at VBI.

Martin Sigalow is a debate coach and teacher at Lake Highland Preparatory School in Florida. This will be his second year as an instructor at VBI.

Kathy Wang debated at Stuyvesant High School in New York. She attended VBI as a student and this will be her second year as an instructor at VBI.

For more information about our amazing staff, including the ones featured in this post, visit here.

Q: Most of our instructors have been to camp before as a student including you. What have your previous camp experiences been like and what did you like most about camp?

Kathy: I really enjoyed VBI as a student! After all, some of the people I met and was in a lab with at my first VBI ever are still my best friends today. I think VBI balanced the need for a high-intensity academic setting with the ability to relax and have fun in a very healthy way, which was helpful for me because I never learned well in environments that were only intensely competitive. The overall positive nature of VBI is really underrated in terms of what a debate camp should look like. You can easily choose to have a rigorous camp schedule filled with drills and practice if you want, of course, but success at VBI was never forced upon me as a standard for learning. I think that, coupled with instructors who were accountable and caring outside of pure results, made VBI the one debate environment I had hardly any anxiety in throughout 4 years as a competitor.

Martin: Free work time with instructors. Low teacher/student ratios were the best for growth. I learned about different argument types and how to deploy them, which gave me a certain level of expertise One-on-one time was key

Priya: Debate camp is a challenging experience, but that’s often why it’s so effective. Camp was definitely stressful for me the first year. It felt like my lab leaders opened up my brain, dumped in a lot of information and jargon, and expected me to know it all. But I came out knowing exponentially more than I did before. My favorite part about camp were the communities and relationship I built with other debaters. Debate is cool. Debaters are cool. And camp is definitely really cool because it’s rare that you get three weeks to be around people that act and think in the way you do.

Margaret: Camp is really what you make of it, so it is important that you are staying focused during your time at VBI or any camp that you decide to go to. All of my camp experiences have been unique in their own ways because of the way I allocated time for different subjects. I find that the more plugged in I am at the camp, the more I do well. The friendships that I have made at camp are what I love most about camps, especially VBI because it fosters a community and family feel.

Raffi: For me, what I found most helpful about camp is the emphasis on drills and practicing skills. The amount of practice rounds and speeches given in lab helped to improve my technical skills and my confidence in being able to execute any strategy in any given round. That way, during the year if a situation comes up that I’m not super familiar with, I can know that I’ve done drills and speeches that are similar to what I’ve worked on at camp.

Q: You’ve been to debate camp before and now you’re teaching at VBI for your first year out. What advice would you give to your younger self when they attended camp for the first time?

Margaret: While you’re at debate camp, try to only focus on being at camp. Don’t let things outside of camp distract you, while you are there, you are there to better yourself and learn more about debate as a whole. Some of the assignments can be hard and stressful, but always try to compete them to the best of your abilities. Your lab leaders know what is best for you, so trust what they can do to help you get better at debate.

Raffi: I wish that I had done a better job of allocating my time spent at camp. Too often in my first year I spent time inside just researching the camp topic, instead of focusing on more general skills; it’s often the case that the camp topic isn’t used during the year, so focusing on skills that will apply regardless of the topic is something that I regret not focusing more on.

Priya: My first year at camp was one of the most stressful experiences of my life, but it was also one of the most beneficial. If you’re a new camper, make sure to reach out to lab leaders and focus on learning. There’s no other time in the year when you’re going to have access to the type of people and resources that you do at VBI, so take advantage of them.

Q: You all have taught at VBI before! Now that you’ve worked at VBI before, what advice would you tell students who are newcomers to debate?

Kathy: A lot of campers can get pretty shy and hesitant to drill, perform, or reach out to instructors at first. Honestly, I was included in that category more often than not, but I found that going out on a limb and being open made camp life much easier. Of course, that doesn’t mean going into camp with absolutely no game plan – it’s definitely important to identify skillsets you want to improve in – but the point of camp is to expose you to new material and ideas. Being a friendly face and being active instead of passive when learning helps massively. Camp is the one time of the year that debaters have such a diverse set of instructors with experience to help with general skills, so it’s important to be able to use that time. Plus, people are honestly less scary than they seem once you get to know them, and everyone wants more friends. Every time I was embarrassed to reach out, instructors and mentors have just wanted to help more than focus on whatever flaws. I promise they won’t remember or judge if you mess up. Everyone has.

Martin: I would tell myself to seek alternate perspectives. Every year I went to camp I became caught up in the fads of that camp. If I had been more open-minded earlier that would have been better. Also, actually do drills. They suck, but there’s a real extreme upper limit on how good you can be without it.

Q: Debate camp can be really tiring and an overwhelming experience for students, especially the younger students. What do you think campers should know for surviving debate camp?

Priya: Take it easy. Camp is supposed to be a learning experience, not a competition. Young debaters often get worried about the camp tournament, but it’s better to focus on expanding your debate abilities. Doing well at the camp tournament literally means nothing. Instead of prioritizing short term success, think big – focus instead on bettering your strategies and trying things you otherwise wouldn’t do. And of course, make friends, have fun, meme sufficiently, etc.

Kathy: Yeah, debate camp is super overwhelming. I think campers should remember that everyone’s been through this process and understands how stressful it is, so they shouldn’t be afraid to reach out if they ever need help. Nobody’s story in debate is struggle-free. Even if it feels super isolating and impossible, there are certainly people who understand what it feels like who’ll be there for you. Keeping that in mind is super important. Approaching people like instructors doesn’t necessarily always have to be for academic purposes, and I absolutely promise that if any campers need to talk about just managing anxiety, instructors and lab leaders would understand. Debate is honestly a very psychological activity and is really stressful just by definition of being a competitive extracurricular. I honestly can’t stress enough how vital it is to have a good support network in the activity – who knows how early I would’ve quit debate had it not been for mine – and so if it’s possible at all, campers should make sure they have one too, no matter who it is. I’m always available if anyone needs to just let off steam about how draining debate might be.

Margaret: Be efficient! One of the things that I would always do is put off my work. If you’re in a work heavy lab, don’t spend the first half of the night watching netflix/tv, but prioritize finishing your work. That saves your sleeping schedule and ensures that you’re focusing on debate! Sleep is vital, especially if you’re doing 3 weeks of camp, no one is too cool for sleep.

Raffi: The important thing is to put yourself out there. The instructors may seem intimidating at first, but they’re there to help and are genuinely interested in your improvement. It’s imperative to take initiative and walk up to staff members and ask questions/work with them. It’s also really helpful to work with staff members who you don’t have access to during the year; they can offer information that you might not be as familiar with and help.

Martin: Play games, rather than watch TV, if you can. Take frequent breaks; you deserve it. Hang out with friends and the time will fly by.

Q: Every year, there are articles published about making the most of your time at debate camp and they offer a wide range of advice. What is the single best tip you have for making the most of your camp experience at VBI?

Raffi: Make an effort to meet new people. VBI offers the chance to be at a camp that pulls from all areas of the country, and meeting new people is valuable throughout life. This isnt just a tip to make debate more fun, but also crucial for competitive success. Meeting different people allows you to reach out to them at a tournament for information on what other people are reading/judges, which provides important information that helps with tournaments.

Margaret: Focus in on areas that you are weak in, but still allow time for what you are best at! Find a lab leader that is very good at something your bad at and make them your person; work with them until you feel like you have a better understanding of the material.

Kathy: The biggest tip I have is to avoid burnout. Learning when you’re exhausted and just not up for it won’t be helpful learning. A lot of people skip out on downtime or mealtime to prep 24/7, which besides being really unhealthy, won’t help you really retain the information or work after you shove it into your head. Just because you’re at debate camp doesn’t mean you need food, water, and sleep any less than you normally would. You can’t really be a robot for 2 or 3 weeks. Know your limits, know what kind of learning works best for you and don’t be afraid to ask for it, and be self-aware as to when you’re actually absorbing knowledge and when it’s going in one ear and out the other. Continuously thinking broadly as to what camp’s been giving you in the long run and how what you’re doing right now either contributes to or detracts from that will help make an overall effective camp session.

Martin: This is the only place where you get, unrestricted by the ties of school allegiance, to ask any number of instructors whatever you want. Take advantage of all the different people around you, and work your heart out. Explore different things and do what you want to do

Priya: Fake it til’ you make it. Most people act like they understand more than they actually do, so don’t be afraid to ask question. Being inquisitive and focusing on learning, as opposed to seeming bad in front of lab mates, is going to be a lot more helpful in the long run.

Q: Any final thoughts to share with us?

Martin: The key to a good debate camp is an open and welcome intellectual atmosphere. That means there isn’t shunning by high level instructors of specific ideas or debate styles. That puts kids on ideological rails and creates a stultifying intellectual atmosphere where people don’t feel free to do what they want to do. The key key key thing to do is to direct people to teach kids what they want to learn, or send them to someone that can. Kids should have an unrestricted, socially or otherwise, space to pursue interesting thoughts, even if you disagree with those thoughts.

Margaret: The most important thing about camp is that you try to enjoy yourself. If you are having a miserable time or are really down on yourself, you are not going to gain the skill that you could have if you kept an open mind. Be open to learning and what lab leaders have to say because they only want the best for you.

Kathy: I have both a pub quiz and an Omegathon champion title to defend from my first year out alone, and I am dead set on doing so in case any of you get funny ideas.