Christina Marin Credit: photo by John Booz

It’s the first day of the Chicago Debate League’s mid-season tournament, and Christina Marin of Kelvyn Park High is stuck “going maverick,” or debating solo. While her partner visits Champaign-Urbana on a college tour, Marin’s on her own crafting the arguments she’ll present on this year’s topic, national ocean policy. And she’s on her own devising strategy for the moment when her opponent might make an argument she’s never heard before, yet must refute within minutes.

But if Marin is worried, she doesn’t show it, putting a relaxed smile on her game face. She and her partner, senior Veronica Casteneda, are considered pros in the debate world, trading tips with fellow debaters when they’re not going head-to-head against them. The two are among five young women on Kelvyn Park’s 17-member squad.

“I can see they were the students who weren’t fierce competitors when they started, but now they are,” says Chicago debate alum Perry Green, a recent graduate of Jones College Prep who now debates for the University of Louisville and is a judge for this tournament at DePaul University, the largest in urban debate league history.

Debate is catching fire in urban school districts around the country, and nowhere more so than in CPS, which now has the largest league; 31 schools have teams, and 19 offer an elective course in debate. And young women like Marin have flocked to sign up; 55 percent of Chicago debaters are female, compared to only 40 percent in the National Forensic League, the national high school debate society.

Marin missed three years of school while living on a farm in Mexico but nevertheless is at the top of her junior class. She’s taking extra courses in hopes of graduating a year early, and scored an above-average 25 on an ACT practice test. Always a conscientious student, Marin credits debate with helping sharpen her skills in reading comprehension and analysis, writing and even math.

“In any class or any reading, you’re asked to interpret what the author is saying, like Shakespeare.

Shakespeare is tricky,” says Marin. “I used to read a hard chapter of a book twice, but now I can only read it once. We are reading college-level information [in debate]. It not only helps in English, but in science and any class you do reading. It helps in understanding word problems in math.”

Her skills and those of her debate colleagues have been honed this year by reading and analyzing some 200 pages of government and policy documents, scholarly and scientific articles and other material supplied by The National Association of Urban Debate Leagues (NAUDL) on national ocean policy.

Once students digest that material, they build research skills by doing their own original research. At a debate camp last summer at Northwestern University, Marin did just that, using the Internet to find policy documents from think tanks such as The Brookings Institution, and studies from specialized web sites like ScienceDirect, a clearinghouse of journal articles. Marin also practiced detecting bias in sources and analyzing arguments.

By providing these kinds of experiences, debate addresses the lack of intellectual challenge and rigor that young people often experience in urban high schools. “I know Kelvyn Park’s not the greatest high school in the world,” Marin says. “But there are bright people here.” Urban debate was created to reach them.

Chicago’s debate league got its revival in the mid-1990s, thanks to a small group of former debaters (including former Illinois Supreme Court Justice Seymour Simon), who banded together to bring back the league after a lapse of more than 30 years. The Community Renewal Society administered the Chicago Debate Commission until CPS stepped in to support the league through its Office of High School Programs. (The Community Renewal Society publishes Catalyst.) Around the same time, billionaire philanthropist George Soros’ Open Society Institute began funding urban debate leagues, hoping to reach young people like Marin.

“The competitive dimension of debate prods kids to learn about things they wouldn’t otherwise learn,” says Eric Tucker, director of publications for NAUDL and a Rhodes Scholar who is researching urban debate as part of his doctoral studies at Oxford University in England. “[Debaters] learn how to research and come to terms with problems in public policy. They learn not to be intimidated by technical language. They learn how to familiarize themselves with subjects with which they have no prior experience.”

Many of Kelvyn Park’s debaters face an extra challenge and gain an added benefit—their first language is Spanish, and many say participating in debate has improved their English.

Last year, Kelvyn Park’s junior varsity debaters dominated their league, taking first and second place at city championships. Those debaters have now leapt to varsity—joining Marin and others who were already at that level—in the tougher AA conference.

Coach Mark Mouck gives a blunt assessment of how the team will fare: “This year, I knew we would get our butts handed to us,” he says. Still, he emphasizes that students must learn from each round no matter what the outcome; after tournaments he requires them to write an analysis of why they won or lost.

His relaxed yet relentless attitude has helped forge tight relationships among the team members and between the team and coaches. Their camaraderie is evident in the tournament, where Marin helps teammates strategize, and during practice, where she and other varsity debaters coach less experienced teammates.

“We haven’t hauled as much hardware home yet this year,” assistant coach Darren Tuggle admits. “Our team’s going through some growing pains. The level of competition’s been raised, but we’ll only get better as we go on. Our kids can compete with anybody. I mean that as a larger statement about Kelvyn Park kids generally.”

Carrot and stick

Early in the first round, Marin is cross-examining one of her opponents, a young woman from Kelly High. Her questions are aimed at helping her to get a better handle on her opponent’s arguments. As she explains later, “You want to understand their argument and also how they interpret it” in order to craft a sound counter-argument.

Marin says debate has taught her not just how to plan strategy in advance, but also to think quickly on her feet. “It’s good to have a pre-set strategy, but it’s even better to have a strategy in the situation,” she says.

After the round, some of her teammates are waiting outside to thank her for a tip and tell her how they used it in the round that just ended. Like Marin, some debaters are hardworking students. But others have far less interest in schoolwork, although plenty of smarts. Sophomore Joshua Rodriguez, who reports scoring a 26 on a pre-ACT test, readily admits to being lazy about his classes. But he says debate is his incentive to keep his grades up to the C average required citywide to participate in extracurricular activities.

Mouck and Tuggle regularly ask the team about their grades and use a carrot-and-stick approach to motivate slackers. The two barred several debaters from today’s tournament because of poor classroom performance. And they’re dangling the prospect of debate camp to encourage team members to strive for high GPA’s that will help them earn scholarships to attend.

On the second day of the tournament, Marin is maverick no more. Castaneda is back, and the two are fired up in their round against two girls from Orr High, which includes plenty of “clash,” or point-by-point argument. While waiting to give her team’s last rebuttal, Marin bounces impatiently in her seat before offering a spirited review of her main points to persuade the judge that she and Casteneda should win the round.

After lunch, a thorny question regarding equity in the league surfaces when two debaters make a pitch for their peers to join a new student leadership council. Some debaters say the league’s structure reinforces inequality among the city’s high schools. Schools are placed in conferences yearly based on a mix of factors that include overall academic performance as well as debate record. As a result, college preps and other top-scoring schools end up dominating the top A conference, leaving less academically prestigious schools in the second- and third-tier AA and AAA conferences.

But schools do have some veto power, says Les Lynn of NAUDL. He adds that the three conferences each end up including roughly one-third of schools, and “We have not put a school in a conference they’ve made a persistent objection to.”

“It’s institutionalized racism,” counters Green. When quarterfinal winners are announced, Marin and Casteneda learn they didn’t make the cut, despite the judges’ praise. No one else from Kelvyn Park does either. On the bus home, they read the judges’ ballots and reflect on their rounds. Marin won two of five—one going maverick, another with Castaneda.

Marin believes she will have to do a better job of presenting her materials and using some of the strategies she learned at Northwestern’s debate camp. Noting that the rounds she won were judged by college debaters, she theorizes her approach may have gone over the heads of judges who did not have high-level training in debate strategy.

But soon, in keeping with Kelvyn Park’s penchant for having fun as well as learning, she and her teammates shift gears. Shooting off the bus and scooping up a handful of snow, she instigates a snowball fight and steps back to watch. Debate strategy ends, snowball-fight strategy begins.

Editor’s Note: At Catalyst press time, two pairs of debaters from Kelvyn Park were heading to the semi-finals in another Chicago Debate League tournament. Christina Marin and her partner were not among them.

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