City teens learn to debate

Parents usually want their teenagers to argue less. Yale’s Urban Debate League just wants them to argue better.

Friday afternoon, a group of 35 New Haven high school students participated in a debate tournament hosted by Yale’s New Haven Urban Debate League. Students participated in three rounds of parliamentary-style debate judged by Yale College students. The participants represented nine New Haven public schools — schools that do not have their own debate programs. Although this is only the second debate to be held this year, President Jennifer Wang ’10 said she hopes UDL will hold tournaments monthly.

By learning to debate, Wang said, the high school students gain analytical skills that will serve them through the rest of their lives.

“The question to ask is, ‘Why debate? Why is it so great?’ ” she asked. “It teaches self-confidence and self-esteem. It teaches how to articulate ideas and thoughts.”

The debaters argued Friday about whether the government should ban fast food in schools. Each side was given a limited amount of time after the topic was announced to decide on their line of arguments. The debate addresses where the responsibility lies for combating obesity in the long run.

The high school students said they recognize the skills they are gaining from this experience. Alexandra Scisinl, a freshman at Wilbur Cross High School, said she had never debated before, but the joy of argument outweighed her initial nervousness, she said.

“I like getting my point across,” Scisinl said, “and I felt really comfortable here, so I wasn’t nervous.”

Aaron Zelinsky ’06 LAW ’10 and Sarah Marburg ’06 started UDL in New Haven in 2004. Zelinsky said he was inspired to start the program at the suggestion of his late great uncle, Justice Seymour Simon of the Illinois Supreme Court, who was involved in Chicago’s program. Energetic individuals such as Zelinsky have been instrumental in keeping the debate program going.

“We had people that didn’t believe we had staying power,” Zelinsky said. “There were some principals who were apathetic or unhelpful.”

In many New Haven schools, debate is not prioritized as an extracurricular, Wang said. But UDL has succeeded in attracting students, who often create their own after-school study sessions to prepare for tournaments.

UDL Vice President Habib Moody ’10 said the program has expanded by 50 percent from last year. UDL is now sending coaches to nine schools, as compared to six schools last year. More than 70 high school students are currently participating in the after-school program.

The structure of the program relies heavily on student self-motivation, Wang said. The Yale student volunteers hold weekly meetings at the high schools, driving themselves in Dwight Hall vans or taking buses, she said. Each week, there is a different curriculum predetermined by the curriculum director.

“Every school is different with different needs,” Wang said. “The head coach decides how to proceed after identifying the needs.”

Wang said they have reached a “saturation point,” expanding as far as possible with the existing volunteers and resources. The group is now focusing on recruiting more Yale students to volunteer with the program as coaches and on procuring more funding, she added.

The program started in 2004 with only 14 high school students and eight Yale coaches.

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