When Gunnar Sandwith and Devon Mann went to their first debate competition, the last thing they expected was to bring home trophies.
As members of Orcas High School’s first speech and debate club, it was a great way to start the season.
“We got up to speed really fast and we triumphed at our first tournament,” said Coach Joan Pedrick.
Sandwith and Mann, both sophomores, attended a tournament in Snohomish in mid-November where a total of 22 schools competed and only four students earned awards in the novice division. Mann earned third and Gunnar came in second.
“For us to get two awards at our first tournament was incredible,” Pedrick said.
It all started this summer when Sandwith and Mann, who are good friends, attended a debate camp at Whitman College. They were originally drawn to the activity because of its value on college applications. But after camp they were hooked, and their parents helped launch the club with the help of Pedrick, who competed in high school and college. She went to a coach’s training clinic to get prepped and the Orcas Island Education Foundation is providing $3,000 toward the club’s expenses.
“It made a big difference in my life so this is my ‘pay it forward’ moment,” Pedrick said. “The students are smart and funny and a joy to work with. Their enthusiasm has been a motivator for me to step it up.”
Ian Lister is the assistant coach and other club members are Annika Flemming, Maggie Paige, Emma Heikkinen and Keith Light. They meet twice a week and participants practice the one-on-one “Lincoln Douglas” style of debate that is based on values, logic and philosophy. For those who don’t want to debate, they can participate in the speech activities.
“Students do not need to compete,” Pedrick said. “They may attend simply to improve their writing and speaking skills … We are hoping to host a mini clinic this summer for high school kids to get their feet wet and spark interest.”
Students are given a month to prepare their arguments on a pre-determined topic. For this most recent tournament, it was “the right to be forgotten from internet searches should be a Civil Right.” Competitors must present arguments from both sides in 1,300-word cases. Pedrick said this stye is a “good analytical builder.”
“I’ve always liked arguing but debate club makes you look at things from another perspective,” Sandwith said. “It opens your mind.”
Mann says the club gives her “self-confidence from doing something intellectual” in front of other people and that her public speaking skills have improved immensely.
Debate club students will attend three district tournaments this year plus the state qualifying meet on February. If Sandwith and Mann make it to state, they will no longer be competing in the novice division.
“If we get that far, we’ll refine our arguments and be prepared for anything,” Sandwith said.