An ALT, a Debate Club and Debate Competition
During my first few weeks in Naha Kokusai Senior High School, I had a relaxing time enjoying Okinawa’s sunny weather, interacting with my JTEs, and learning about the school system. Then one fine day, shocking news was delivered by my JTE. The debate club students had been preparing for the debate competition in the adjacent language lab throughout their summer vacation while I was leisurely exploring the school compound. They were too shy to approach the new ALT for help.
That marked the start of the debate journey. Without any debating experience, I was thrown into the debate conundrum. Suddenly, I had to transform into an expert on Japan’s rice tariff system, a debater, and a debate coach. My JTEs, my fellow ALT, Jesse, and I were debate amateurs. Since the seniors retired to prepare for their entrance examination, our students were also inexperienced.
For the next few hectic months of trials and tribulations, we researched, wrote constructive speeches, prepared evidence sheets, and conducted mock debate sessions. In the previous year, the seniors won the contest and had the chance to participate in the All Kyushu Debate Contest. Unfortunately, we did not advance to the All Kyushu Debate Contest because we came in the third place. Despite our setback, it was a good learning experience for the coaches and students.
For the next debate season, based on the lessons learned, we worked on our strengths and weaknesses. Growing into a more experienced team, we started preparations once the topic was released in April. After endless hours of research, uncountable constructive speech drafts, intensive mock debate sessions, and tears, our hard work was rewarded when we emerged victorious at the All Okinawa Debate Contest and advanced to the All Kyushu Debate Contest. The almost fairy-tale-like ending continued when we were triumphant in the All Kyushu Debate Contest. After the unexpected victories, we realised that our talented team had the potential to compete at the national level. The ultimate dream came true when we travelled to Shizuoka to participate in the All Japan Debate Tournament.
Based on my experiences, I hope I can provide some advice and help any fellow ALTs who may have the opportunity to be running a debate club and preparing the students for debate competitions.
Preparing for debate competitions
Starting a debate club
- Debate clubs are suitable for mid- to high-level senior high schools (especially those with strong English programs like international courses). My debate students are mainly from the international course classes as these students have much higher English speaking abilities.
- Target the international course classes and advertise aggressively in the beginning of the year.
- Sometimes there will be potential debaters in normal classes. Observe, pick out these students and encourage them to join the club.
- Usually students who have overseas experiences (like lived in an English-speaking country or participated in overseas exchange programs) and show great interest in learning English have potential to become good debaters. My main team consists of three students who participated in overseas exchange programs and one student who lived in America for a few years.
- Based on the rules, each team is only allowed one debater who has more than a year’s experience staying in a country where the first language or one of the official languages is English, or who mainly uses English at home.
Forming debate teams
- Two debate teams (Team A and B): It is advisable to have two teams. Other than the main team, there should be a sparring team (with students of comparable debating ability) so that both teams can improve through mock debate sessions.
- Research team: A group of students in charge of researching, organising evidence and creating evidence sheets.
- Support team: Beginners who are keen to learn debating skills and participate in future competitions. They help with logistics like organising evidence sheets and doing miscellaneous tasks.
Assigning debate roles
- Assigning suitable debate roles to the students is a difficult but critical process. Spend some time to assess the abilities of the students. Communicate with the students to find out which roles they prefer.
- The first speaker should be a good reader who can deliver the constructive speeches eloquently. He/she should be able to understand the opponent’s questions and answer them.
- The second (attack) speaker prepares an attack speech in a few minutes and attacks the fallacies in the opponents’ arguments.
- The third (defence) speaker prepares a defence speech and defends against the opponent’s refutations. At the same time, he/she re-proves (reconstructs) the team’s standpoints.
- The final (summary) speaker summarises the issues discussed in the debate. He/she examines both teams’ arguments and compares them.
Writing the constructive speeches
- The most challenging part of the debate preparations is to write a good constructive speech. Writing the constructive speeches is a time-consuming process. The constructive speeches will usually be edited many times before the finalised versions are used in the competitions.
(1) Analyse the topic
- The topic will be released in April. The 2013 topic was “The Japanese government should remove the tariffs on rice imports”. The 2014 topic was “The Japanese government should abolish nuclear power plants”.
- Check the definitions of the topic. Understand the definitions thoroughly as they form the parameters of the debate. For the 2014 topic, different competitions have different definitions. The All Japan High School English Debate Tournament had specific basic and supplementary definitions, which differ from the prefectural and regional competitions.
(2) Structure of the constructive speech
Affirmative constructive speech
The affirmative team should clearly state their basic standpoints on why the debate topic should be affirmed, clearly defining the topic by showing a plan, and showing evidence to the prove the advantages of the plan.
Plan: The affirmative must propose a “plan”. For the 2014 topic, most teams had a simple plan due to the definitions and restrictions of the topic. On the other hand, the 2013 topic required more specific plans about the removal of rice tariffs.
An advantage is defined as the solution presented. Only two advantages can be presented. Each advantage should contain the following information:
(a) Present situation: Why the present situation, without the plan, is inadequate/undesirable
(b) Effect: Why the advantage will be gained by the effect of the plan
(c) Importance: How much objective value this advantage will bring
Negative constructive speech
The negative team must clarify their basic standpoints on why the topic should be negated, and clearly proving the disadvantages of the affirmative plan.
A disadvantage is defined as a problem caused by the topic or plan. Only two disadvantages can be presented. Each disadvantage should contain the following information:
(a) Present situation: Why the present situation, without the plan, is adequate/desirable
(b) Effect: Why the disadvantage will be caused by the effect of the plan
(c) Importance: How much objective (negative) value this disadvantage has
Researching and creating evidence sheets
- Hours and hours will be spent on research. Many trees will be sacrificed as students print stacks of reports and newspaper articles.
- The discussion and research should start months before the competitions.
- Extract information from the research materials, synthesize the information, collate and organise them.
- Different teams have different methods of organising their evidence sheets. Some teams use evidence cards in a binder while some teams have large files filled with evidence sheets.
Mock debate sessions
- Mock debate sessions are essential in developing the students’ debating skills. The sessions facilitate the students’ critical thinking as they engage in spontaneous debates.
- During the question and answer sections, students practise how to ask good questions to expose opponents’ weaknesses, and answer opponents’ questions confidently.
Completing at prefectural, regional and national levels
After months of intensive preparation, the final goal is to participate in official debate competitions. Sharing what I learned during various debate competitions, I hope I can provide useful insights into the world of high school debate competitions in Japan.
All Okinawa Senior High School English Debate Contest
Date: Middle to end of October
The prefectural debate contest is the first competition of the season. The top 2 schools will represent their prefecture in the regional competition. The judges may consist of professors from local universities, JTEs and ALTs.
All Kyushu Senior High School English Debate Contest
Date: Beginning of December
The top 2 schools from each prefecture will participate in the regional competition. The level of competition increased as the command of English is higher, the speed of speech delivery is faster, more evidence is used, and more sophisticated arguments are presented. The judges are mainly professors, JTEs and ALTs from the hosting prefecture and maybe a few professors from other prefectures.
All Japan High School English Debate Tournament
Date: Beginning to middle of December
Organised by the All Japan High School English Debate Association (HEnDa), the 2-day national tournament is attended by top debate teams from all over Japan. Many participating schools have long history of debating experience, and students with strong debating ability.
The teams will compete in 5 preliminary rounds. During the preliminary rounds, the teams will decide the opponents by lottery. From the 3rd to 5th round, the matches will be allotted based on the power-pairing system. The top 8 teams will be selected for the finals.
The tournament is judged by main judges (experienced judges from previous national tournaments) and sub judges (accompanying judges from participating schools). Appointed sub judge, I had to judge 2 preliminary matches. The stressful experience was a good learning opportunity for a new debate coach as the level of competition was so high.
The goal of the tournament is not just winning but also encouraging the students to make friends. The students recited a “HEnDA Make Friends” pledge at the opening ceremony, and enjoyed making friends at the “get-to-know-each other” party and throughout the rest of the tournament.
When I started my JET journey, I thought that I would be taking a break from teaching in a high-level school in Singapore. I never thought I would be part of an unexpected but extremely educational journey. As Daniel J. Boorstin said, “Education is learning what you didn’t even know you didn’t know,” I learned so many lessons which I did not even know I would. I learned the art of debating. I learned debate-coaching skills. I learned humility and sportsmanship when I witnessed how my students accepted defeats gracefully and strived to learn from their worthy opponents. I learned appreciation when we received outpouring of love and support from the school (principal, vice principals, English teachers and students), the community (the debate committee, ALTs judges, Shuri High school and Okinawa Shogaku senior high school debate teams who had mock debate sessions with us), and the professors (Dr Peter Simpson, Dr Katsuyuki Miyahira and Dr Catherine Matsuo who provided valuable feedback). Finally, I learned how to be a teacher. My students reminded me why I joined the teaching profession many years ago. At the end of my JET journey, other than fond memories of eating and travelling around Japan, I will definitely remember the debating days and the difference we made.
An earlier version of this article was published at Ryukyu Star.