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“There are countless stories about that student who was quiet at the beginning and then [he or she] gets up at the end and gives an incredible speech.” — Misha Solomon CC ’14
On a Thursday afternoon in April, standing with his teaching partner, Stefan Garcia CC ’15, in front of a classroom of seventh and eighth graders at New York’s P.S. 111 in Manhattan, David Maloof CC ’17 begins the day’s Debate I class with a presentation of one of the most essential aspects of any debate — reliable information.
“Today we are talking about research. Research is a very important part of any argument,” he explains, “because the things that you say need to be proven.” Handing classroom laptops to each of his students, he asks them, “Where can we go to research a topic?”
Raising their hands in response, the seventh and eighth graders of New York’s P.S. 111 are just a few of the many students who benefit from Columbia University’s Youth for Debate (YFD) program. The Columbia students who are involved in YFD teach public speaking and debate curricula once a week to hundreds of middle and high school students in twenty classrooms throughout New York City. In the words of its graduating president, Misha Solomon CC ’14, YFD works “to provide students at underserved New York City public schools with the skills of debate and public speaking in order to open their minds and to encourage them to advocate for themselves.”
YFD was founded at Columbia in 2008 by a group of sophomore and junior debaters who, according to YFD’s mission, wanted to play a role in “giving a voice to [the] future.” Now, six years later and with a board that includes Columbia alumni, the organization has established itself as a national 501(c)(3), has established another chapter at Duke University and is working to expand the program to other colleges across the United States.
With a formal curriculum developed completely by Columbia students, YFD educates public school students on the processes of speech writing and delivery, emphasizing the skills of a successful debater. Composed of three curricula, Debate I, Debate II, and Public Speaking, YFD works to provide students with the ability to conduct thorough research, analyze issues from multiple perspectives, and fashion effective arguments.
“We encourage our coaches to be very fluid with their approach to the curricula,” says Solomon. The YFD board makes on-going alterations to the curricula based on the experiences and suggestions of the coaches, who are encouraged to create their own worksheets and activities. “We get really excited every time a [coach’s] new worksheet … is added to the Dropbox,” he says.
YFD not only works to impart the skills necessary for public speech and debate, but it also educates students on the essentials of analyzing and forming opinions about important social topics. “It forces students to confront current issues,” says member Benjamin Harris CC ’14. “They end up educating themselves about what’s going on in the world.”
Garcia, who has been a coach for YFD since his freshman year, says that through YFD, “students in underserved schools are given an opportunity to be challenged in a way that might not necessarily be available to them through the public school system.”
Touching on a common sentiment expressed by YFD, both Garcia and Solomon agree that the experience students are given through the program permeates much more than just the debate sphere. “Public speaking is something that informs everything that you do in life,” says Solomon. “Once you can give a three minute speech about the death penalty, it becomes easier to write a well-structured essay or to have the confidence to express why your parents should allow you to go to college out-of-state.”
With a membership of more than 45 College, Engineering and Barnard students, Solomon has made it one of his most important goals as president to foster YFD’s volunteer community. “We want people to be part of a community, and we [encourage] that by getting our members involved with each other through fun and accessible meetings, get-togethers, dinners and events throughout the school year. I’ve seen and experienced great friendships that were created through YFD.”
At the end of each spring semester, YFD hosts The Youth for Debate Annual Debate and Public Speaking Tournament, a platform through which YFD’s middle- and high-school students are given the opportunity to apply what they have learned to a formal debate setting. “You really see a difference in the seven weeks that you work with [the students],” Solomon says. “There are countless stories about that student who was quiet at the beginning and then [he or she] gets up at the end and gives an incredible speech.”
The tournament, which is held in Lerner Hall on Columbia’s campus, also gives the students a look into the life of the college students who teach them. “The students in these classrooms like having college students come in,” Harris says. “They get to ask us questions about college and what it’s like. It’s nice for them to have teachers for an hour a week who are more their peers than their normal teachers are.”
Ever seeking to expand its mission, YFD’s board, now composed of newly-elected students and its new president Adriana DiFazio BC ’15, continues to reach out to schools throughout the city each year and to increase its already substantial Columbia student membership. “Some people are here because they really enjoy debate,” Harris says, “some because they really enjoy teaching or being with kids. … I’m passionate about it because it’s nice to get out of the Columbia campus bubble and really engage with the city while trying to pass on to middle schoolers and high schoolers what we’re passionate about. I think Youth for Debate is a great way to do that.”
To learn more about Youth for Debate, visit youthfordebate.org.
Sally Whalen CC ’17, from Spokane, Washington, is a student web editor for the Columbia College website.