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debate team

In its first year, the Shoreham-Wading River debate team takes part in state competition. Photo from Shoreham-Wading River school district

In a little over a year, the Shoreham-Wading River debate team developed from an idea by two high school students into a fully formed, competing group in the New York State Forensic League championship. And while team members admit they still have a lot to learn following their recent defeat in the state tournament hosted at Hofstra University April 28 and 29, they can’t argue with how far they’ve come.

After success in February’s qualifer, four students from the nine-member team — juniors Mahdi Rashidzada and Andrew Honold, and freshmen Jalal Sawas and Yusra Rashidzada — went up against more experienced debaters from various school districts across Long Island and the state.

“We were all very worried about how the debate would go since we didn’t really know what to expect — after all, it was our first championship debate.”

— Mahdi Rashidzada

With a discussion topic of universal basic income implementation in various countries, Sawas and Yusra Rashidzada won one out of five debates while Honold and Mahdi Rashidzada lost all five of theirs. Every student competed in five rounds on Saturday, and, depending on how well they did, advanced to final rounds on Sunday.

Mahdi Rashidzada said though the team lost, he considers his team’s participation learning experience for the future.

“At first we were all very worried about how the debate would go since we didn’t really know what to expect — after all, it was our first championship debate,” the junior said said, pointing out that the team was assembled at the start of the 2017-18 school year.

In February, the team began preparing for the state competition by meeting after school at each other’s houses two days a week, researching the debate topic, writing speeches and practicing counterarguments in front of adviser and English teacher Brenna Gilroy.

“We really wanted to go in there and win something, but we kind of knew that we shouldn’t expect a win since everyone we went against were amazing debaters [who have been debating since their freshman year],” Rashidzada said. “We hope to improve our rankings by working hard next year.”

He added that he and the rest of the Shoreham students had great camaraderie with other debate teams.

“We became friends with our rivals, so the atmosphere was very enjoyable,” he said.

Honold, who, during the qualifiers at Jericho High School Feb. 10, nabbed first place in the junior division by winning all four of his debates there, also hopes that last month’s competition will have a positive impact on the club moving forward.

“States was sobering for the team. We realized we have a lot of potential going into the future, but we must work over the coming year to have a chance to do better next year.”

— Andrew Honold

“Frankly, we all learned that we have a lot to learn,” he said. “Our performance at states was disappointing, and we expected to do better. We faced a lot of really talented, experienced and disciplined debaters and, for the most part, they outplayed us. Really, states was sobering for the team. We realized we have a lot of potential going into the future, but we must work over the coming year to have a chance to do better next year.”

And by already reaching this high level of competition within its first academic year, the odds are in Shoreham’s favor, especially with all the state qualifiers returning to the team.

In March 2017, two then-sophomores and later club co-captains Declan Beran and Emma Kirkpatrick brought their debate team idea to the board of education. They proposed that such a team, which was unanimously approved, would be beneficial to students with interests in political science or law. They said that by their senior year, they hoped to compete with other schools.

The club’s members, who span all grade levels, have said through debate they learn analytical and public speaking skills, and hone speechwriting and teamwork abilities.

“I learned how to better structure my debate, and overall I feel like I’ve learned how to become a better speaker this year,” Sawas said following the state competition. “I found it crazy that I was going up against the best kids in the state with honestly little experience, [but] I found it fun.”

In just its first year, debate team members qualify for state competition

Shoreham-Wading River High School’s new debate team sees three members qualify to compete in the state championship at Hofstra University this April. Photo from Shoreham-Wading River school district

There’s no arguing that Shoreham-Wading River High School’s new, student-formed debate team is already a huge success. Just ask juniors Andrew Honold and Mahdi Rashidzada.

The two students, along with freshman Jalal Sawas, won the majority of their debates during a qualifying competition at Jericho High School Feb. 10 to advance to the New York State Forensic League championship tournament at Hofstra University in April.

“It was just kind of like throwing myself into cold water. It was really tense, but I could feel myself adapting better, and overall, it was really fun.”

— Andrew Honold

Among the roughly 20 teams represented within the league, Shoreham-Wading River will be one of only three school districts from Suffolk County.

“Going in, I was terrified — I didn’t know what to expect,” said Honold, who ended up in first place in the junior varsity division by winning all four of his debate sat Jericho, each on the topic of plea bargaining. “That was actually my first debate, too. It was just kind of like throwing myself into cold water. It was really tense, but I could feel myself adapting better, and overall, it was really fun.”

Rashidzada, who won three of four debates, said the club has been a great asset to him and his eight teammates.

“It gives us kids an outlet to really understand the world around us,” said Rashidzada, whose prior experience in debate outside of the district has helped steer the team. “It allows us to express ourselves and our views, to research and to improve our speaking skills. It’s just been a great experience and I’m really excited to be going to states this year with my friends.”

It was about a year ago, in March 2017, that two then-sophomores — club co-captains Declan Beran and Emma Kirkpatrick — proposed the idea of a debate team to the board of education. It was quickly and unanimously approved for the 2017-18 school year based on their presentation, where they outlined a plan for their first “pilot” year: They would assemble the team, hold weekly meetings with adviser and English teacher Brenna Gilroy, compete in practice debates and prepare for competition with other schools “by their senior year.” All but the last portion of their plan has been consistent, having gotten a head start on the competing part.

“I’m very happy and grateful that we were given the opportunity to work hard and achieve the goal of creating this team.”

— Declan Beran

“I’m very happy and grateful that we were given the opportunity to work hard and achieve the goal of creating this team,” said Beran, a lacrosse player and vice president of his class, who added he’s wanted to form a debate club since his freshman year. “Just seeing members of our team compete is really
special. It’s our first year and we’re going to states — it’s exciting. We encourage every grade level of our high school to get involved.”

Beran said the club typically meets two days a week and members review different points for each side of a topic, practice counterarguments, and in the week leading up to a debate, face off against each other. Based on that practice run, other students will evaluate their presentation and suggest ways to improve it. The students said they learn analytical and public-speaking skills, hone their speech-writing abilities and have a chance to regularly practice teamwork and collaboration.

In December, the team’s topic was on whether developing countries should provide developmental assistance to other developing countries. The teams get one to two months to fully research topics before debating. For the state competition, the students will research and discuss universal basic income, typically described as a new kind of welfare regime in which all citizens of a country receive a regular, livable and unconditional sum of money, from the government.

“That was something I knew absolutely nothing about,” Honold said. “And I’m still learning, but it’s a really interesting topic. It’s great to know about and debate, because it’s something that’s probably going to affect us in the future.”

Sophomores Declan Beran and Emma Kirkpatrick successfully convinced the district’s board of education to let them head Shoreham-Wading River’s first debate club. Photo from Shoreham-Wading River school district

A love of law and political science, combined with the impact of recent presidential debates, sparked the idea for two Shoreham-Wading River sophomores to push for a debate team.

Thanks to the efforts of Declan Beran and Emma Kirkpatrick, the board of education saw no argument against the idea, and unanimously approved the newfound club, which will begin the 2017-18 school year.

In their PowerPoint presentation during a board meeting a month prior to approval, Beran and Kirkpatrick, who will serve as co-captains of the club, said the first year will serve as their “pilot year” in which they’ll assemble the team, hold weekly meetings with an advisor, compete in practice debates and sharpen their skills to prepare for competition with other schools, which they hope to do by their senior year.

In convincing the board, the two students are already well on their way to being successful debaters, said 10th and 11th grade English teacher Brenna Gilroy, who will serve as the club adviser.

“I just gave them some guidance — they approached me about starting the club and legitimately did most of the work,” Gilroy said. “I think [the board agrees] it’s important for students to be able to communicate well and effectively, but in a respectful, researched and knowledgeable way.”

“I think [the board agrees] it’s important for students to be able to communicate well and effectively, but in a respectful, researched and knowledgeable way.”

— Brenna Gilroy

Beran, a lacrosse player and vice president of his class, said he “prides himself in being an eloquent speaker.” He has wanted to form a debate club since his freshman year, in the hopes the skills acquired could help him, and others with similar interests, in future career endeavors. Beran plans to be a political science major in college, to work on becoming a corporate lawyer.

When Kirkpatrick, an honor roll student with similar career aspirations, also realized the school had no clubs catered to students with interests in political science or law, her next step was to make one. After speaking to Gilroy about moving forward with the idea, her teacher recommended she speak with Beran.

Upon meeting Kirkpatrick, Beran said “we knew this was the time to act.”

The two students, who were deeply invested in the atmosphere of politics last year, pointed to the coverage of the 2016 presidential debates as a catalyst in creating the club, wanting to use it as their template.

“Mrs. Gilroy, Declan and I met after school weekly, collaborating on our ideas for the club and putting together a presentation for the board,” Kirkpatrick said. “Through this process of creating the club, many students have approached me asking me about it and when they can join.”

Similar to the foundations of a debate, the sophomores told board members that students in high school are usually timed and limited by topic when writing argumentative essays, adding that the club could help students taking Regents and AP exams.

Skills acquired will help students not only in high school, but in college and the workplace as well, when doing things like formulating an argument, presenting it in a clear and cohesive manner, building self-confidence with public speaking and deepening research and analysis skills.

“We’ve found that as the students benefit from the debate team, the school will prosper,” Beran said, adding that he thinks the team will be made up of about 20 students overall.

High school principal Dan Holtzman said the required teamwork and collaboration within the club will be a tremendous asset to the students. As for the work of Beran and Kirkpatrick, he couldn’t be prouder.

“I’m a staunch supporter of students advocating for themselves,” Holtzman said. “The fact that Emma and Declan invested a great deal of time and effort into the presentation, it speaks volumes about their passion and commitment.”

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