Arguably great

Peninsula students far from speechless in high school drama, debate program

Posted: Sunday, April 23, 2006


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  Nikiski's James Barrett concentrates as he talks with a teammate before one of the meet¿s events. Photo by M. Scott Moon

Photo by M. Scott Moon

It’s 10 a.m. on a Saturday morning at Skyview High School, and Kate Linner is talking to a wall about NATO.

Talking to a wall is odd enough. Talking to a wall about the inner workings of an international treaty organization on a Saturday morning is even further out there.

For a high school freshman to don dress clothes and happily volunteer such information at an hour when many of her classmates are still at home sleeping might look like a cause for an intervention.

It could be. Unless, like Linner, that high school student is a member of the drama, debate and forensics team.


Photo by M. Scott Moon

Linner was practicing a speech for presentation in a competition round of foreign extemporaneous speaking. “Extemp,” as the event is commonly called, offers competitors three questions per round about foreign or domestic affairs. Speakers choose a question, then have 30 minutes to prepare a six to eight minute-long speech on it, incorporating published evidence from the files they bring to the tournament.

Linner said she spends about half of her 30 preparatory minutes gathering evidence and deciding on three or so key points and the other practicing the speech outside the room where the round will take place. When it’s her turn, she walks in, talks through it and hopes for the best.


Photo by M. Scott Moon

“You just sort of get a feel for what your points are, then you just go with it. You don’t really have time to memorize it,” Linner said.

To gather evidence, Linner peruses a variety of news sources, including high-brow policy publications like the Economist, clipping tidbits that may prove useful for future events.

“It really gives me a better outlook on the world,” she said.


Leora Olsen (in pink) and Tristin Rutherford (in black) from Nikiski High participate in a cross examination, or policy, debate with Elizabeth Dyment (brown stripes) and Kelsey Shields (brown solid) of Skyview High. Drama, debate and forensics has a long history at Nikiski and are growing programs at Skyview and Homer High.

Photo by M. Scott Moon

Which, in a way, is why her drama, debate and forensics (DDF) team even exists.

“Seeing all these kids doing these academic things and really enjoying them is just amazing,” said her coach, Homer attorney Dan Westerberg. “It really encourages analytical thought.”

Westerberg started the team in 2004 after seeing the academic competition at the state DDF tournament in Anchorage that spring. He attended “on a lark,” his interest sparked by a presentation he gave to his son Luke’s eighth grade class. Luke’s teacher was doing a unit on debate and invited Dan to present on the topic.


Kate Linner of Homer hall talks to herself before an extemporaneous round. Students practice in the hall until moments before their presentation.

Photo by M. Scott Moon

Dan, though a lawyer, knew nothing about debate as a school-sanctioned activity.

“In college, we did something like debate, but it was about legal arguments, not policy arguments,” he said.

After the class, Westerberg went to Homer High School to ask about volunteering for their debate program. He found out there wasn’t one. There ought to be, he thought.

“I did a lot of public speaking as a kid, and it’s helped me all through my life,” Westerberg said.


Nikiski High School students James Barrett and Leora Olsen perform a pantomime at the drama, debate and forensics meet held at Skyview. Their skit dramatized a drive to Barrett's imaginary mother-in-law's house.

Photo by M. Scott Moon

Westerberg’s start-up program, now readying its students for their second state tournament next weekend in Anchorage, was only the second to appear on the Kenai Peninsula. This year, Skyview started a DDF program.

The start-ups have learned a lot from an unlikely DDF leader: tiny Nikiski High School. Nikiski’s team doesn’t just lead the way for the peninsula, though. Nikiski is one of the most respected DDF teams in the state of Alaska.

North Road word warriors

“Paulene and I came in on that Friday night to a message from my debate captain and it sounded like a 911 call,” recalls Nikiski coach Joe Rizzo of a phone call from April 2001.


Skyview's Thomas Osterman signals 30 seconds remain for an argument in a cross examination debate between Skyview and Nikiski students.

Photo by M. Scott Moon

Paulene, Rizzo’s wife, was pregnant at the time. Rizzo stayed home and assistant coach Carla Jenness had taken the students to the state tournament.

“(My debate captain was) screaming into her cell phone about how all these kids made semi-finals, so Paulene said, ‘You know, if those kids win state, and you’re not up there, you’re gonna really regret it.’”

Joe and Paulene went, reasoning that a hospital was 45 minutes away at the most. Nikiski’s team did win the overall prize that year, as well as several individual honors. Rizzo got there just in time to see the awards ceremony.

“That kind of started a tradition for Nikiski. They really wanted to win it every year really badly,” he said.


Nikiski's James Barrett concentrates as he talks with a teammate before one of the meets events.

Photo by M. Scott Moon

The team has done well since then, with individual and team awards going Nikiski’s way at the state tournament and other Anchorage tournaments throughout the year.

In 2004, the team made Alaska debate history when three of the four two-person policy debate teams in the semi-final rounds came from the school. No school had ever accomplished such a feat.

The students didn’t know what to do. Should they debate each other? Should one team forfeit the round? Which team?

Laura Rooper and Paul Morin’s team was scheduled to face off against the team of then-debate captain Ramona Baker and her partner Sharon Miller.


Skyview's Kayla Moneypenney and Amanda Skinner carry their debate box to a round.

Photo by M. Scott Moon

Laura and Paul, who both had a few years of high school competition left, walked down the hall, had a short discussion and then offered to forfeit the round to the team of seniors. Rizzo said the tearful scene was one he’ll never forget, and one that speaks to the character of the Nikiski team.

“A lot of these kids have known each other since first grade. There’s this family feeling about that, and it makes a big difference in how much you can get accomplished, and how confident you are when you go into these meets.”

Ramona and Sharon went on the final round and beat a team from Anchorage’s Service High School to take top honors.

Such honors are now in the sights of the students who will travel to West High School and the University of Alaska Anchorage next week for this year’s state tournament.


Members of Homer High's team talk about their progress during a break between competitions at a drama, debate and forensics meet held at Skyview High School earlier this month.

Photo by M. Scott Moon

Tyler Payment, a Nikiski High junior who will compete in the Humorous Interpretation event with a piece called “Silver Lining” by Garreson Keillor, sees winning the top state award in the event as a distinct possibility, but credits Rizzo, Jenness and his team mates for making that possible.

“Joe and Carla do an excellent job, along with Josh Ball and Tatiana Butler, our two team captains,” Payment said. “Really, without them, I wouldn’t see myself doing as well as I have done. I’ve been graced to do so well.”

Payment and his teammates also put in hours of work. Payment does DDF work between taking part in varsity football, wrestling, soccer and track. The DDF students at Nikiski High who only do DDF put in two to three hours a day, he said. And the DDF season runs for nearly seven months.

“DDF is so long. It runs through basketball, it runs through football. It’s kind of like hockey, which seems like it goes on forever.”

Forensic future

The time commitment from students and coaches plays a huge role in the amount of forensic activity open to students on the Kenai Peninsula.

Nikiski students have an edge. Rizzo and Jenness are both teachers at Nikiski High, and Rizzo was hired by a principal, Bob Bellmore, who wanted the school to have a forensics team. Rizzo also got the chance to learn from coaches in Southeast during a stint teaching in Wrangell.

“There is an excellent group of coaches who care more about the kids than the competition, and they really taught me a great deal about the activity itself,” Rizzo said.

Rizzo was lucky to have the training, he said, and is also lucky to have his school’s support. Skyview had a DDF program in 2002-03 with a coach named Megan Jones. Budget cuts trimmed Jones, and with her, the DDF activity.

This year, a few students who were involved as freshman in Jones’ program prodded Skyview English teacher Clark Fair into taking on coaching duties this year.

Westerberg knows how volunteer-intensive DDF can be for students and coaches. He comes to Homer High School for two hours of practice and coaching on Tuesdays and takes students to tournaments on weekends, but said students do the lion’s share of practicing on their own time.

“What really builds the program is the kids enjoying themselves,” Westerberg said.

Westerberg’s training in the technical aspects of forensics came from Rizzo, who took his team to Homer to do workshops with interested students. The workshops were extra work for the Nikiski team, but there was an ulterior motive: more teams on the Kenai Peninsula can save Nikiski money.

The addition of Homer and Skyview to the roster of DDF teams on the peninsula allowed for three small tournaments this spring, for which none of the three schools had to pay excessive travel fees.

“If we were going up to Diamond (in Anchorage) right now, we would have spent 800 dollars,” Rizzo said at the April 1 meet at Skyview.

Rizzo said there is a renewed interest in DDF on the peninsula, and Westerberg hopes other schools follow the example of Skyview and Homer.

“It would be great if we could get a few other schools on the peninsula to start up teams,” he said.

If student interest lines up, Soldotna High School may be next to add a DDF program. Mike Druce, SoHi’s drama teacher, coached debate at two schools in Oklahoma, two in California and in Kotzebue before moving to the peninsula. He even coached some individual events for students at SoHi in the early 1990s.

“I’ve flirted with the idea,” Druce said of restarting a DDF program. “It could possibly even happen, on the drama side of it, next year. It all depends on if we have students who are interested. I certainly wouldn’t mind coaching it.”

Masters of mouthing off: DDF requires research, quick thinking, silver tongues

Drama, debate and forensics team members compete in a wide variety of events. On the debate side, there is policy — cross examination, or CX — debate, which pits two-person teams against one another, Lincoln-Douglas debate, which is one-on-one, and public forum debate, with two-person teams arguing informally, similar to televised political debates.

Debaters of all three sorts are given a resolution, which is a statement of a controversial nature, and give a series of speeches on either the affirmative (for) or negative (against) side. This year’s policy resolution is “The United States federal government should substantially decrease its authority to either detain without charge or search without probable cause.”

In policy debate, affirmative teams present a case, which includes a policy to be implemented. The negative side simply has to tear down the affirmative case.

With Lincoln-Douglas or value debate, both sides present a case anchored by a value, for example, “freedom.” The form is named Lincoln-Douglas after the slavery debates between Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas.

With policy and Lincoln-Douglas debate, debaters find out which side they will be on on the day the round of debate will take place.

The third form of debate, called public forum, is literally a toss-up. The team winning a coin toss can decide which side to argue on or give the choice to the other team. These debates are much less formal, less research-intensive and shorter, without the presentation of an official case to be torn down or defended.

Competitive speaking events are even more wide-ranging. Humorous and dramatic interpretation let competitors pick a script to memorize and present. Duo interpretation is for two people and can be humorous or dramatic. Original orations are persuasive speeches written by the speaker, and the expository event has speakers reading the topical words of others. All of these speeches range from 6-10 minutes in length, and extemporaneous speaking, where competitors are given 30 minutes to prepare a speech on a given topic, are between 5 and 7 minutes long.

Drama categories are like speaking categories, but allow more movement and the use of props. There is a solo category, which allows humor or drama; a duet category, which is the same with two actors; a pantomime category, which is a three to six minute presentation without speaking; and reader’s theater, a group acting presentation up to 12 minutes long.

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