July 29, 2022 – All debaters have one thing in common: that first round. It doesn’t matter if you come from a small school or a national circuit powerhouse, the first round is always intimidating. You may have memorized the resolution. You may have highlighted all of the answers in your files. You may know all the speech times backwards and forwards. Still, that first time you step into a round to debate another school is an intensely humbling experience.
As a former coach, I spent a lot of time creating and tweaking novice materials to prepare students for that first experience, but I always had nervous students who remained anxious about the unknowns in their first real round. I often think of those nervous kiddos on the cusp of their first debate and remember that my students were actually quite lucky, despite their nerves. They were the beneficiaries of a debate class that met four times a week, with access to a vast infrastructure of experienced varsity debaters and program alumni they could go to with questions or fears.
We have known for a long time at NAUDL that there is a large gap between the experiences debaters have when they have experienced coaches, varsity teammates who can act as mentors, and more structured practices or classes to support their learning and growth. However, it’s a tremendously tricky problem to solve. Sustainable programming in 22 partner leagues across the country depends on teachers, many of whom have never competed in debate, becoming involved as coaches. However, these new coaches are often as nervous as the students they are working with before that first tournament. They must take a look at this activity, see the potential for students within it, and be willing to push that anxiety aside to take on that first challenge.
One of the tools that NAUDL develops each year to help level the playing field for all debaters is a set of core files for novice debaters. These simplified files limit the scope of the topic to a few key arguments that everyone across a league uses – so there are no evidence gaps compounding the experience gaps on teams. However, even with a universal file set, we know the core files can be intimidating. Imagine you are a 14-year-old novice, or a second-year teacher who volunteered to take over the debate program, and you receive a file stack of 500+ pages upon your arrival – formatted in a way that is distinct from every academic standard, no less. How would you react? Would you even know what questions to ask? Who would you ask?
This year, we reimagined the core files project and leveraged the debate experiences of our ten White & Case NAUDL Alumni Fellows (NAUDL’s summer internship program for Urban Debate Network alumni) to try and alleviate some of the equity and accessibility problems that exist even within a limited file set. We began this year’s fellowship with an “Equitable Core Files Intensive” that we hoped would result in a file set and resources that dealt with some of these concerns head on. We were optimistic that our Fellows would bring their recent debate experience to this process in ways that would benefit the entire network.
The final product exceeded my wildest expectations.
From day one, we approached this exercise with an eye towards empathy for novice debaters and coaches. In sharing their first tournament experiences, the Fellows impressed me with their recollections. They recalled that the file structures were mystifying and that the tournament layout was not intuitive. They were in agreement that the difference between a great first tournament experience and a terrible one very clearly lied in the access and experience of their coaches, teammates and judges.
The Fellows had lofty goals for the file set that we had ten business days to create. They wanted accessibility for students – regardless of the size of their squad or their coaches’ debate experience. They wanted evidence that students could relate to and understand as novices. They wanted tools that encouraged students to explore the topics on their own. They wanted instructions that were friendly and encouraged students to embrace a growth mindset as they approached this strange new world of debate.
It feels like an understatement to call this experiment a success. From start to finish, this year’s Fellows impressed me with their thoughtfulness, awareness, and tenacity as they attempted to tackle some of the problems we’ve known have existed in our core file set for years. This year’s core file set includes simplified arguments and explainers that novice debaters and new coaches should be able to access from day one. It includes a guide for use that explains the scaffolding of the files from most simple to most complex. It is now, finally, augmented by a massive resource library where students and teachers can explore videos, articles, podcasts, and more that dive into key concepts from the files.
What’s more inspiring is that this is merely a first step towards a more equitable and accessible core file set process. As these incredible alumni reminded us on the first day of the Core Files Intensive, one of the greatest benefits of debate is the iterative nature of feedback and development. Trusting our Fellows to bring their experience and empathy to the creation of this set of resources led to the genesis of a new annual process. The Core File Intensive will not just serve as the kick-off for the fellowship, but the feedback and output from these sessions will inform each season’s Core Files, in turn providing a critical piece of our program planning for years to come.
Sara Sanchez is Director of Programs and Communications for NAUDL. A former classroom teacher and accomplished debater and coach, Sara is a dedicated advocate for strong debate programs and practices in communities across the country.