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Debate program gives voice to students

About a dozen teens at Fremont High School are standing in a circle in their classroom. They are rapidly firing questions at one another so fast they’re almost inaudible. This is Fremont High School’s debate team, in the middle of a cross-examination exercise. When the exercise is over, the team gets down to the real issues.

“Let’s brainstorm all the ways you, the Fremont community, and your families are affected by public transportation and how can we, how can investments in public transportation improve your life,” suggests coach Elizabeth Siarny. She’s been teaching and coaching at Fremont for the last two years.

“We happen to be in an urban community, where students take transportation, the local transportation system to school. So it’s easy for us to find a way to connect it to them,” explains Siarny.

These students aren’t cross-examining their opponents on topics like foreign policy or the global financial crisis – they’re hitting the topics close to home and close to heart.

“They like being able to argue – it’s very much a student voice class,” says Siarny.

Siarny was at Fremont High for only a few months when three of her students pulled her aside and asked her to be their debate coach. Even though she had no experience in debate, she didn’t want to say no. She picked it up quickly and soon began to take an active role in recruiting new members and coaching students, like she’s doing today.

Senior Diego Garcia is the current debate team captain. He’s been debating for four years.

“One part of academics is sort of like just doing all of the work, listening to your teacher talk – and another part is sort of like speaking on your own, your own part, and I think that debate plays a huge role in that, sort of like what the students actually think,” says Garcia.

Garcia never planned to be on the debate team. The class is an elective at Fremont and Garcia came into the school with a different idea of what he wanted to do. But then the Junior ROTC program that he had enrolled in got cut – along with almost all the other elective classes at Fremont. Debate at Fremont is mostly funded by the Bay Area Urban Debate League and is now one of the few electives remaining.

“At first, I didn’t want to be in debate,” admits Garcia. “I thought, I perceived it as what many people perceive debate as – as this sort of nerdy activity that only really smart people do.”

Garcia’s attitude changed when he started debating. He’s not the only one who has had a change of heart about debate. Juan Carlos Ramos, an alum and a former member of Fremont High’s debate team, says he used to be an average student.

“I wasn’t really into the whole going to class and doing the average thing, so it definitely gave me structure of discipline and it gave me a place where I could be accepted and heard at the same time,” says Ramos.

Now Ramos comes to practices once a week to mentor the team in debate.

“Once students know what debate is, I think a lot of them would choose to do it,” says Elizabeth Siarny, “because they get to talk and the adults shut up.”

It’s when the adults stop talking that the real value of a young person’s view comes through.

“The reason we should invest in debate is because we’re ultimately created a group of more well-formed young people who can go on and advocate for their communities,” says Siarny.

But before they can advocate for their communities, Siarny says their country needs to advocate better for them. Listening to the students is one way to start.

Bri Scharmann is a student reporter at Mills College in Oakland.


CrosscurrentsBay Areaeducation