Nov. 5, 2014
Duluth News Tribune
At Denfeld, a renewed love for debate
By Kyle Farris
Nick Anderson says it’s much more challenging with everyone watching.
On Mondays and Wednesdays after school, the Denfeld High School sophomore joins the rest of the school’s debate team in researching, writing and delivering speeches, the last of which Anderson said he finds far trickier during weekly meets against other schools.
“First of all, you’re in front of everyone,” said Anderson, who debates in the congressional category — a mock Congress in which students draft, discuss and pass their own legislation. “You have judges. You always have that feeling when you see them writing something down. It can be a little intimidating.”
It’s the type of experience that has been lacking, even nonexistent for Denfeld students in recent years. That’s because the school’s debate team, a powerhouse in the 1940s and ’50s, dissolved in 1994 and remained so until this fall.
Jill Lofald was the team’s coach then, and she’s the coach now.
When Lofald resigned as coach in 1994 to spend more time with her children and focus on other aspects of her job — she teaches English and coaches public speaking and theater — no one stepped in to fill the void.
“It was really a lack of coaches,” she said. “There aren’t many people who want to do it.”
That problem persisted until three years ago, when Lofald made her first push to bring back debate at Denfeld.
“When I took over as coach in 1986, the coach for Grand Rapids came up to me and said, ‘If you let debate at Denfeld die, I will haunt you to your grave,’ ” Lofald said. “In the back of my head, that voice has been there my whole career. I didn’t want debate to die.”
So after three years of being pushed, the school found enough money to support a debate team. And after three years of pushing, Lofald exorcised her demon.
Now, she works with 17 students each week — a handful from Denfeld and a handful from Duluth East High School — to explore ideas, develop arguments and practice the sometimes anxiety-ridden speeches.
Students debate in four categories: public forum, which involves two participants from each side; policy, similar to public forum but with slight modifications; Lincoln-Douglas, a one-on-one debate centering more on philosophy than concrete issues; and congressional, which used to fall under the public speaking program.
Lofald’s debaters are split roughly in half between the Lincoln-Douglas and congressional formats.
Bright and early each Saturday — typically by 5:30 a.m., Lofald said — she and the students journey down to the Twin Cities area, where Lofald said nearly all the debate meets in Minnesota are held.
Debate starts at 9 a.m. and lasts until 5 p.m., and after a quick dinner on the road, Lofald said, she doesn’t return home until 10 p.m.
“It’s a long day,” she said. “But I love it.”
Throughout the week, students pound away at their computer keyboards, writing up arguments inspired by everything from speeches by George Washington to data tables showing the number of casualties from various wars in history.
Kong Xiong, 16, a sophomore who debates in the congressional format, was using the casualties of war table to illustrate why the mock Congress shouldn’t pass a bill that proposes the United States intervene in Yemen in an attempt to stabilize the nation.
“I’m thinking along the lines that it costs a lot,” Xiong said. “We might even lose lives, and we don’t necessarily need to do that.”
Lofald said Xiong has recruited his friends to join the debate team, and a new face walks through the door seemingly every week.
“I definitely want more kids, but this is a good start,” Lofald said, lamenting in particular the team’s shortage of female debaters. Right now, girls are outnumbered 15-2. “In today’s society more than any time, these skills are like gold. It teaches it all — critical thinking, logic, research, writing, speaking. I like to open that door for them.”
Xiong said debate hooked him because he enjoys research.
Danielle Slotness, a junior at Duluth East, said she joined “because I love arguing, and I love a good challenge.”
Lofald said she thinks students are joining for an all-encompassing reason.
“I love for students to find a family, to find other students like them,” she said. “People attracted to debate and to speech — there’s not always a community for them,” she said. “They maybe go home and watch the news or talk to their parents or whoever on current events. They don’t realize there are other students in the building who like those things, too. For those students to discover each other in all their quirkiness, it’s kind of fun.”