2021’s First High School Debate Tournament


Above (left to right): Catherine Auerbach, Ali Letchford, and Mikey Lubin participated as a team in the debate tournament on January 16th. 

Catherine Auerbach

Last Saturday, January 16th, was the first virtual debate tournament for many members of WESS’s high school debate team. For some students new to the debate team, it was their first tournament ever. While debate doesn’t necessarily require one to be in-person, conducting a tournament virtually absolutely changed many aspects of the tournament experience, from the general dynamic and feel of the tournament to specific changes in its structure. 


WESS students debated against teams from California using the parliamentary format, the typical format we have used in past tournaments (though this year, WESS debaters have the opportunity to participate in public forum style tournaments as well). The tournament ran from about 9:45 AM EST to 7:15 PM EST. This was a significant change from my experience with in-person tournaments, where we often had to board onto the coach bus as early as 6 AM. It was nice to feel well-rested ahead of a long day of debating. 


For each round, debaters started off in breakout rooms with the students from their school, where the topic would be announced and students would have time to prepare for their debates. Students wrote down the essential notes for their speeches using either prepared research documents for priorly announced topics, or the Internet and each other’s advice for extemporaneous topics (topics introduced during the tournament). Students had 20 minutes prep time for the prepared topics, and 30 minutes prep time for extemporaneous topics. 


Preparing for extemporaneous topics with my team was much more difficult than it normally would be at in-person tournaments, as we had to brainstorm all our arguments over FaceTime. However, a positive aspect of virtual extemporaneous debates is that use of the internet was allowed to help craft our arguments and find evidence, while it normally isn’t when we’re in-person. Having access to specific evidence from reputable sources made our arguments more in-depth and well-supported. 


After prep time, we transferred to designated breakout rooms with a judge and our opponents, where we would debate, receive feedback, debate results, and speaker scores from the judge, and eventually return back to the main room for information about the next debate.


A downside of virtual tournaments is that you’re basically tied to the zoom call the entire day. While the debates themselves were enjoyable, the tournament was the longest call I’ve ever been on, and was incredibly exhausting. After attending school online for the entire week, an even longer zoom call on a Saturday felt daunting. 


11th grade debater Matthew Shulman shared that “Not only are you looking at a computer screen the entire time, but it’s also longer than a normal debate because it is online, making it exhausting in a way.” 


While Matthew shared that his love for debate still makes it enjoyable in an online environment, I agree that the extra time allotted to ensure a smooth transition between breakout rooms did make the day more draining than usual. 


I also got a chance to speak with Jasmine Sanchez, another 11th grade debater, who had an overall positive experience with the online tournament. 


“We had some iffy judges at times,” Jasmine said. “But I was ultimately very happy with my performance and my team’s performance because we got some controversial sides for certain topics but were able to pull out on top.”


 The prepared topics for the January 16th tournament were “Divest from fossil fuels” and “Lobbying does more harm than good.” The extemporaneous topics were “Twitter should not have banned Donald Trump’s account” and “Donald Trump’s second impeachment did more good than harm.” As these topics had to do with current events in America, many arguments were controversial, but ultimately led to an incredibly fun and enriching debate. 


While recognizing the negative aspects of online debate, Matthew and Jasmine shared my opinion that participating in this tournament was a reminder of just how exciting debate can be. Whether virtual or not, debate remains a true highlight of my high school experience at WESS, and I’m excited to keep competing in the future.