Some members of Oak Park and River Forest High School debate team have seen the film, The Great Debaters, the story based loosely on the Wiley College black debate team of the 1930s.
OPRF debaters enjoyed the film, but said it’s a far cry from the kind of debating they’re used to. The OPRF debate team was resurrected five years ago by a small group of sophomores. The club has since grown to 24 members. They’ve also racked up some tournament wins and broken down a few stereotypes along the way.
Danielle Stevens, a 15-year-old sophomore and first-year debater, thought differently about the team prior to joining.
“Before I started doing debating this year, I thought it would be a whole bunch of nerdy kids,” said Stevens, one of only two girls on the team. “I thought, ‘Why do I want to do that?’ But they’re all friendly, and I don’t judge them anymore.”
Fellow sophomore Marquis Ard, 16, who’s also a first-year member, didn’t know what to expect either.
“When I first walked in, I felt kind of awkward because I was the only African-American, and I was like ‘Whoa, is this the right thing for me?’ But as it went on it was like, ‘These are cool kids.'”
The OPRF squad competes in about a dozen tournaments each school year. The team is an OPRF-sponsored club and is given a budget from the school for in-state tournaments. In order to compete nationally, they host their own fundraisers
And their debates shouldn’t be confused with the kind of contests viewers have been watching between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton on TV.
They compete in teams of two against other schools. The best duo moves through several rounds to the finals. But they’re judged on the strengths and facts of their arguments. Researching their topic, which is pre-approved by tournament officials before a competition, is the key to scoring well, team members say.
“It’s not what you think of when you think of a debate,” said Elliot Stoller, a 16-year-old junior. “Everyone has their own strengths, but the team part comes from working together from the research.”
There’s also a speed-reading element to the competition.
Listening in, it might sound like the kids are speaking some kind of rapid gibberish, but it’s actually a valuable exercise that teaches them to articulate each word.
Practice techniques include placing a pen in their mouth while speaking. Points are lost for fumbling over their words, making weak arguments or just freezing up.
“For my first tournament I just stopped and, like, froze, and my partner had to help me,” said Stevens, who partners with Ard.
“Everybody has their moments when they don’t know what’s really happening,” added senior Misha Slavin, 16. “Everybody has trouble in the beginning, but you get more used to it.”