Insights In Instruction

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

Fred Ditzian debated for three years at Fort Lauderdale High School in Florida. This will be his third year as an instructor at VBI.

Sienna Nordquist debated for four years at Barrington High School in Illinois. This will be her second year as an instructor at VBI.

John Staunton debated for four years at the Bronx High School of Science in New York. This will be his second year as an instructor at VBI.

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

Q: You all have attended and taught at debate camp before. What is your favorite debate camp memory either as an instructor or student?

Sienna: I’m not trying to be that annoying debater who’s evasive in CX, but to be honest, I don’t have one singular favorite memory! VBI does a great job of creating a learning environment that not only heightens your capacity to grow as a debater, but also fosters a community that’s like a family and loves to have fun. Omegathon pops into my mind as a part of each day at camp where you can just have fun and bond with your lab mates. Also, the only thing better than Omegathon is having your lab WIN Omegathon with Jake Nebel breaking the tie in an epic hula hooping contest! All Omegathon bragging besides, some of my favorite memories from camp are random recollections of funny moments or jokes that spontaneously happened while doing drills with my lab friends or while working on assignments together late at night. If there is only one thing I can stress about VBI that makes it different from other camps, it would be community. While debate is naturally competitive, the VBI staff are genuinely committed to making VBI a place where everyone feels accepted and a part of the VBI family.

Fred: Tough to say because there are so many happy experiences I have had over the years at VBI. But if I had to pick one it would have to be last year when two of my mentees broke at the camp tournament. Both had worked for hours doing research and drills with some excellent wins against incredibly tough opponents throughout prelims which made the whole experience more gratifying. The mentee system at VBI always gave me a strong sense of investment with every student that I work with so it’s fair to say I was pumped to see their hard work payoff. The other thing that made the experience great was that all of my mentees were succeeding with strategies and case positions they just picked up while working with me. Knowing that my mentees were actually learning because of the work we did together is one of the reasons I keep going back to VBI and the competitive success was icing on the cake.

John: Prior to my junior year, I went to camp and spent most of my time with a couple of really close friends. On free day, we went out to different stores and it was nice getting food with them and visiting some interesting stores. We passed by a store that was a mixture of a record store and a barbershop, which I found pretty cool, among other interesting places, such as an arts store. In particular, I would say my favorite memory was taking a picture of the group. It’s quite the metaphor.

Q: There are many different drills used by many different instructors across the years. What is your favorite debate drill and why?

John: The stop and go rebuttal redo is probably my favorite drill as an instructor. To be clear, I absolutely hated it as a student – for obvious reasons. However, as an instructor, I feel like I can pinpoint many specific inefficiencies debaters have and I’m able to make a mental checklist of what the debater I am working with needs to improve on. In addition, I get to listen more closely to the content of the arguments they are making and make specific comments on them. This is better than just hearing a rebuttal redo because instructors then tend to make more general comments that are not as helpful as specific comments on arguments and inefficiencies. Stop and go rebuttals lend themselves easily to these specific comments and debaters tend to improve more quickly and have a better understanding of what they need to work out.

Sienna: My favorite debate drill is to have students respond to a case on a topic they’ve never previously debated or researched with very limited prep time (maybe five minutes) to construct responses. This requires students to engage in critical thinking at the highest level, since they likely only have limited background knowledge on the subject. There are many different drills that instructors will utilize to strengthen a debater’s critical thinking skills, but I find that this simple drill is the best way to train debaters to have a succinct, articulate, and astute approach and thought process for a new topic. I’ve also observed that with the preponderance of disclosure (the practice where most schools and students post their cases online) in the debate community, many students have this false sense of security that they will never really face an argument they have not previously heard or seen disclosed online. With or without the practice of disclosure, each round has unique argument interaction and strategic distinctions; however, this drill simulates your “worst case scenario” that you have no tangible evidence or sizable background knowledge on the subject, and are forced to engage the arguments with your most powerful, and most often forgotten, tool—your creative and critical thinking skills.

Fred: Without a doubt 1AR from Hell drills where you put together a devastating prep out against a student’s aff and then make them craft the perfect defense against it has always been fun for me. Personally, I love when you send them the doc and they respond “WTH Fred why would you do this to me?” and make them spend hours getting the 1AR right. All jokes about torturing students aside, I think it is both fun and instructive to go over every 1AR strategy and what if scenario in depth like a rhetorical game of chess. Of course, my favorite moment is when they get the speech right and realize that they can handle it because of all the new-found confidence they get from knowing that they can be thrown into debate hell and come out of it better off.

Q: There are many different types of debate, ranging from framework, critical, policy, and more. What is your favorite type of debate to teach, and what do you think is different about getting good about that type of debate versus other types of debate?

Fred: That’s tough to say in part because I have always thought the division between different styles of debate was somewhat arbitrary considering that the logic involved in one style often spills over into another. However, gun to my head, I would have to say I have always enjoyed a good framework debate. To clarify, I use this term to broadly apply to debate about questions like what impacts matter most, what it means for something to be true and other deep questions of that nature. First reason why I have always been a fan of this “style” of debate is that I think whoever is best at explaining what matters most in the round are often great at making the debate clear to me. Personally, I think that many rounds that I have watched over the years were harder to interpret than they needed to be because neither debater did a great job explaining what mattered the most. This problem is generally resolved by practicing framework debate even when you are just comparing what util scenario should be prioritized it often seems like the bigger questions around these debates are philosophic in nature. Second, I have always enjoyed talking about philosophy because I have noticed that a lot of what I read applied both to the topic and to my life in general. I honestly have no idea if any of the students I am teaching noticed this cross-over but I always enjoyed reading something for a topic and realized that it helped me make decisions in my own life.

John: My favorite type of debate to teach is critical. I would tend to talk about the literature with kids I’m working with and the literature is very interesting. This is different than other styles of debate, specifically other ones I also enjoy teaching, because it is really focused on being well read and truly understanding arguments. In critical debate, more than almost any other type of debate, being well read is important to running your arguments and comparing your advocacies to alternatives. However, I would like to note that I almost equally enjoy teacher technical skills on theory debate. Theory debate is fun to teach in a different way. There, you have to view the debate really strategically – more so than almost any other type of debate. You have to really understand which arguments are the right to make, how quickly to make them, and weighing is insanely important, and it’s rather easy to do once you get the hang of it. Therefore, it’s pretty fun getting debaters to understand it and implement it. There, you can see them getting a better understanding of what it means to win on the flow, even in other debates that are not theory debates. You can be good at a lot of things and win in debate rounds – being smart, being technically proficient, being persuasive, etc., but being well read in critical debates and being very technically proficient in theory debates tend to make them more fun to teach.

Sienna: Framework is my favorite type of debate to teach! I think that framework debate is one of the hardest forms of debate to become proficient in, because it requires not only expansive knowledge of philosophy and literature, but the aptitude to understand and recognize how frameworks can interact with each other. At the heart of understanding all philosophies and ideologies is your ability to question. Philosophy, and by extension your framework, is the product of a line of questioning. If you can understand which questions your author(s) was most concerned in answering, then you can also understand how to best construct your framework and approach criticizing/engaging with other frameworks.

In terms of honing your skills and capabilities, I think debaters should employ similar methods for improving at all types of debate. No matter which form of debate you want to “specialize” in, you need to develop a foundational understanding of how you formulate and organize that type of a case or argument, perfect your ability to efficiently invoke this process in a debate round, become comfortable utilizing more challenging literature or arguments in your cases, and then master the ability to apply this comprehension and dexterity to multiple layers of the flow. I’m a big fan of the belief that, in any area of life, there is a point in learning and gaining an education where you realize that every subject and discipline is interconnected. Correspondingly, strengthening your understanding and proficiency in one area of debate should always help you in another. Thus, the main way to become even better at one form of debate is to strengthen your discernment on all types of debate, and then recognize the nuances that make one type of debate more adept to help you excel in a debate round, or better yet, create your own nuances!

From my experience and observations, policy and theory debates, and even critical debate to some extent, have become more formulaic. This implies that to become good or great at framework debate, as compared to other types of debate, you likely need to spend more time reading framework literature, but also talking with and learning from other debaters about how the moral questions posed by frameworks can best organize your case offense and rebuttal strategies.

Q: Teaching debate is certainly difficult. What do you think are the hallmarks of a great, as opposed to good, debate instructor?

John: Simply put, an instructor that truly cares about the success of their kids separates a good instructor from the great instructor. A good instructor can relay information. A great instructor can relay information and make sure they care enough to keep working with the kids until they truly get it. As for final thoughts, I guess I hope I can demonstrate that I care about the kids I work with and that they can come to me for anything (debate-related or not). That also means that caring about kids should probably include caring about their mental health. I hope I’d be able to do that job well.

Sienna: A great debate instructor is able to look beyond their own debate experiences and style to focus on the individual needs of their students. A great debate instructor does not just teach their students, but challenges them to think for themselves and question their own opinions/arguments. Also, since we’re teaching debate, we are doing something wrong if we are not also being challenged and questioned by our students. Part of this active discourse between the instructor and students, as well as between the students themselves, requires that my students will never truly know my own personal beliefs. I will defend the belief or argument that is the opposite of their own, not to frustrate them, but to help them coalesce their arguments down to the warrant at the root of their opinions. And, of course, the best and greatest instructors go above and beyond the mandatory lecture/lab/Socrates Hours instruction to be available to students as much as possible, while simultaneously advancing a camp environment that is fun and encourages a supportive atmosphere for students at all times.

Fred: I think the most important aspect of good debate instruction is having a well thought out plan of what and how you are going to teach before-hand. I have had plenty of great experiences teaching but I am not ashamed to admit I have had some failures as an instructor as well. What made the difference was whether I had a well thought out plan beforehand. It’s difficult to think about what every student needs and how to meet those needs on the fly in the same way but if you take the time the pay-off is difficult to deny.

Q: Any final thoughts to share with us about your methods of teaching debate?

Fred: Aside from thoughtful planning I think that taking an in-depth and personal approach to teaching is important. I think people might be tempted to teach every student with some generic format that would help any other student or do what teach what would they would have wanted as a student when the reality is that each student has different needs and strengths that can only be addressed by treating them as an individual. Students can tell when you are just going through the motions and might just think “if they can get here without putting the work in then why should I?” and frankly I think that is such a loss for everyone involved. It’s also rewarding for the instructors too because you learn from trying to meet their educational needs. I can personally attest to the fact that most of what I learned from debate was from this process because I ended up having to learn so many different things just to make sure that my students had the best debate experience possible. Making that extra effort to prepare drills or readings that are just for them makes a huge difference not only because it responds to their specific needs but also because they are more likely put in extra effort themselves because they see all the work you are doing for them and will be inspired to do the same.