Starting a high school debate team can be challenging, especially if the team eventually ends up as a state or national champion. It takes organizational skill, knowledge and hard work to reach that end, but the goal is attainable. In any case, winning local tournaments is the first step to get the club moving. It's even more satisfying if the person starting the team becomes the coach and can enjoy the results of having organized the team in the first place.
Inform potential members of the advantages of a debate club. Members gain confidence and poise in speaking, as well as learn how to think logically and research a topic. Inform prospective students how they can make new friends with teammates, have fun and gain prestige for the school if the team is successful. Adding an impressive activity to their college application is also an asset.
Visit the principal and obtain approval for the team. Convince him of the advantages and prestige to the students, school and community of a debate team. Have him check the budget to see if expenses, such as membership and tournament fees, research materials and transportation to tournaments, can be covered. Request a place to meet. Find a place where students can store materials and can come to do research or meet with partners to discuss strategies before tournaments.
Ask the principal to officially appoint a coach, preferably someone with a background in debate. Look for an English or social studies teacher if a speech teacher is not available. Find several interested students to assist the coach in the creation of the team.
Publicize the first meeting. Announce tryouts over the intercom system. Send notes to teachers to recommend good speakers or interested students from their classes. Post posters in the hallway and cafeteria. Insert information into the school newspaper. Make your own newsletter and distribute it. Announce the formation of the club at a faculty meeting.
Join the National Forensic League in Ripon, Wis., which will furnish you with a yearly topic that is used throughout the country for all high school tournaments. Ask for its help if needed in starting a new team. Check with other schools that have successful teams and ask their coaches for suggestions.
Hold the first meeting and have tryouts. Divide the students into novice, JV and senior teams depending on the students' grades and abilities. Have the older students demonstrate and help the younger ones get started. Elect officers, including a president who will assist the coach in organizational matters, a secretary to keep records of the meet results and a treasurer to take care of funds. Teach the procedure of the four-man debate team or two-man Lincoln-Douglas debate, whichever is available at that time. Give backgound material of the topic. Have students take notes and ask questions. Teach the use of flow charts, where students record the opposing team's arguments. Mention that parents may be needed to act as judges. Assign research for the next meeting.
Ask debate alumni to come to a meeting to help students get started. Look for available debate workshops or camps to recommend to students. Have students observe a tournament before entering one. Publicize winnings in the local papers. Other students will hear about your team's accomplishments and membership will no doubt multiply.
Based in Bellmore, N.Y., Shula Hirsch has been writing since 1960 on travel, education, raising children and senior problems. Her articles have appeared in "Newsday," "Mature Living," "Teaching Today," and "Travel News." She holds a Master of Arts degree from Columbia University and is a retired professor of English.