Afraid to Debate

I wrote this op-ed last week and sent it around to a few papers here in Alabama. Nobody wanted to publish it, it seems, so here it is.

Is Governor Ivey smarter than a fifth grader?

I’ve been building middle school debate programs around the world for 17 years, and I’m not so sure that she is. At the very least, she’s not braver.

This week, I’ll be in New Orleans, where I’ll be working with teachers who coach debate. They come from all across the city, representing affluent and under-resourced schools alike. One thing these educators and coaches all have in common is a love for teaching students to engage in dynamic conversations about controversial current events that affect their community, state and nation. Their students, in grades 5-8, aren’t debating about which flavors of ice cream they prefer. They debate topics that would challenge any adult – subject matter that covers controversies in environmental policy, trade, education, and the criminal justice system. If these areas sound familiar, it’s because those are many of the areas where Alabama’s next governor should be have defensible opinions.

The key there is “defensible.” Debate requires that you go further than simply having an opinion – you have to defend it against criticism and in front of other people. It’s not easy. But while many adults are frightened of public speaking, every year many thousands of young people jump right in to practice one of the fundamental skills of citizenship. And, unlike our governor, they don’t hide from criticism.

There are two possibilities operating behind Governor Ivey’s refusal to debate her election opponent. First, it may be that she is simply unable to debate. Maybe she doesn’t have the stamina, depth of knowledge, or strength of her conviction. If any of these are the case, she’s definitely not fit to be governor. Alabama deserves someone who can stride into combative negotiations on our behalf, thinking and speaking quickly to defend our interests.

On the other hand, it’s possible that she’s intentionally ducking debates as part of her strategy to win an election. If true, this tactic is, frankly, cowardly. If middle school students across America are willing to brave a contest of words in public, why isn’t she?

In our middle school debate programs across the United States, the young people that we work with give me hope for the future of our democracy. They aren’t afraid to take a public position on the controversial issues of the day – nearly all of which lack easy answers and can’t be addressed by canned talking points. Our middle school students stand tall in the face of opposition. And they do it many dozens of times each year. Our governor won’t even agree to do it once. What’s worse, many Alabamians don’t seem to care.

We talk a lot about setting high expectations to make our schools better. We want to be proud of our students and all that they can achieve. We hope that they will represent the best of what Alabama has to offer to a global audience. Those offerings ought to begin with an elected Governor who is willing to engage in public debate about the solutions to the issues we all face.

Let’s also set high expectations for our governor. At the very least, we should expect her to do something that any middle school student can do: Have a debate. She might not be as skilled as they are, but that doesn’t excuse her from the obligation.

Kate Shuster is the co-director of the Middle School Public Debate Program, and an independent education consultant based in Montgomery. For more information on the Middle School Public Debate Program, visit

Starting a New Debate Club

A young student named Kadence wrote to me telling me that they wanted to be a lawyer when they grew up and asking me how to start a debate club at their school. Here’s what I said:

Hi Kadence,

Thanks for writing. If you want to start a debate club at your school, the first thing to do is to find a teacher who might like to be the sponsor of the club and your debate coach. There are a few ways to do this. First, you might try asking individual teachers that you think might be good at coaching debate, or who might be interested in sponsoring the club. Or, you might consider making a presentation to a meeting of teachers at your school, maybe at a meeting of the social studies or English teachers - though math and science teachers make excellent debate coaches too. Another way might be to put handouts in teachers' mailboxes telling them of your plan and saying that you are looking for teachers to be coaches and club sponsors. You might even find more than one teacher, which would be great. Make sure you put the address of our website on the flyer, so teachers can look at what resources we have available. I'm also attaching a one page flyer about our program that you can use.

You should also schedule a meeting with your principal so you can tell them about your plan. They might be helpful in finding a teacher, and they may have some advice for you in organizing a club. Will you try to have scrimmages with other local schools? If you want to compete against other schools, you'll definitely want your principal's help in reaching out to them. See this post for more advice about that:

Teachers will want to know what you're asking them to do, so you'll want to think about that. Will you meet once a week after school? Most schools that have debate clubs do that.

Then, you'll want to sign up students who want to join the club. If your school has daily announcements, put out a call for members in that. Put up posters in the hallway advertising the new club. Have an information session so students can learn more about why the club might be fun and interesting.

Hopefully then you'll have a club! Once you have a teacher recruited, please share my contact information with them so I can help them figure out what they need to know to be a successful debate coach.

Starting a New League

An enterprising middle school student named Maggie wrote to me about starting a new club at her school, and a new league in her city. This is what I wrote back.

Hi Maggie,

It's great to hear that you are forming a new debate team at PSA. It can be challenging at first to get a club formed, but I hope that you will find the process to be worth it. You're asking about two things. First, you want advice for starting a new team. That begins with recruitment. You might consider putting up posters around school and asking teachers to recommend students that might be good for the debate team. At your first club meeting, you'll want to tell students what to expect. Debate is fun, but it's also hard work. Good debaters do a lot of research on their arguments, and keep detailed notebooks for debate preparation. Some students will think that debate is just about talking, not about work. So set a good example and make sure that everyone knows what they're getting into. Your next few club meetings are going to be about getting oriented to the basics of debate - things like the ARESR argument structure and 4-step refutation. There are materials on our site and in our textbook to help with this; your teacher will be critical in making sure that everyone learns how to use these tools. You'll also need to learn to take notes on a flowsheet. There are templates on our website for this. Finally, you'll want to watch a sample debate online so that everyone knows how the debate format works. It will probably take you a few weeks to get all of this figured out. But you can start debating right away, if you choose some topics at first. This way everyone can do their research while they are learning. Start with easier topics, like "Television is a bad influence." Don't choose silly topics, because debating should be taken seriously. After you figure out how to debate, your club meetings will be full of debates. You can even have debates over what topics to choose next! There are plenty of sample topics on our website - feel free to use them.

Next, you might want to start a new league. This would be a great project. We don't have any leagues in South Carolina right now, so you would be the first. To start a league, you need at least three schools with teachers interested in getting trained to be debate coaches. This means that you're going to have to identify some target schools and write to their principals. Before you write to them, come up with a name for your debate league. Usually leagues are named the _____ ______ Debate League. The name could be Palmetto State Debate League, or Charleston City Debate League, or you could be named after some kind of geographical feature. Then send principals a letter inviting them to join your new league. Explain that to join, they have to have a coach. The coaches will all receive free training, because once you have a critical mass of teachers, you'll write to me and tell me about it. Then I'll plan to come there to do a training for the coaches. That training will be on a Saturday, and it will usually last from 10-4. After that, you can schedule your first tournament. Tournaments are also on Saturdays, and they usually last from 8-5. Schools host tournaments and arrange for lunch to be served for sale, usually pizza or sandwiches or something like that. There's a guide to hosting tournaments at the end of our Teacher's Guide that you can look at. Normally leagues have 5 tournaments per year, starting in October and running through April.

I look forward to working with you to start a new league in South Carolina. Please feel free to write to me any time with any questions you might have.




Kate Shuster, Ph.D.

Co-Director, Middle School Public Debate Program

New Video Resource

Thanks to our partners at the English-Speaking Union of the United States, we're pleased to offer a new demonstration debate. This is the final championship debate from 2016 featuring students from the Hackley School in New York and students from the Pegasus School in California.

There's also a judge's commentary you can watch with your students!

National Championship Topics and Locations

Unprecedented program growth has meant we've moved from one national championship tournament to four regional events this year - taken together, they will be the largest debate tournament in the world, with more than 1500 students participating.

Southeast Regionals will be at Tulane University on April 9, with teams from Louisiana, Colorado and Washington, D.C. participating. The topics (not in order) will be:

  • Ad blockers do more good than harm.
  • US Supreme Court justices should have term limits.
  • The discoverer of an abandoned shipwreck should have title to its artifacts.
  • Criminalize spanking!
  • Russian intervention in Syria does more good than harm.
  • Schools should abandon single-sex education.

The three remaining events will be on April 16 in New Jersey (for teams from D.C., New York and New Jersey); Sacramento (teams from Northern California, Oregon and Washington); and Pasadena (for Southern California schools). Those topics (not in round order) will be:

  • The US should establish a no-fly zone in Syria.
  • The US should have compulsory voting in general elections.
  • Schools should require cameras in classrooms.
  • Justice Antonin Scalia's Supreme Court Career did more good than harm.
  • Scientists should use cloning technology to resurrect animals made extinct by humans.
  • The US should adopt the metric system.