Third-year starts urban debate project for young area studentsBy Julia Morse
Third-year Greg Cheyne believes arguing can be as academically motivating for young students as playing basketball or baseball. Cheyne believes the verbal “sport” of debate can encourage students to stay in school and improve their grades, just as competitive school sports do.
“Beyond that advantage,” said Cheyne, “the skill set developed by debate is directly applicable to the academics the students are charged with, and the competitive aspect drives the students to gain and polish those skills.”
After participating in a 2004 summer internship program with the Chicago-based National Association of Urban Debate Leagues, Cheyne, who concentrates in political science and psychology in the College, decided to find a way to bring competitive debate to young people in and around Hyde Park.
“I knew a lot of other colleges had debate programs through the NAUDL, and I figured it was time Chicago had one too,” Cheyne said. The NAUDL aims to improve urban public education by getting young students involved in competitive debate.
Through his affiliation with the NAUDL, Cheyne founded the Urban Debate Chicago Coordinating Committee at the University in the fall of 2004.
Since then, he has facilitated major growth for the group with help from advisors Larry Hawkins, Director of Special Programs, and Barton Schultz, Fellow and Lecturer in the Division of the Humanities and the College, and Special Coordinator in the Graham School of General Studies.
“It is crucial to get students involved in this kind of thing at an early age, crucial to get them thinking critically and in-depth,” Schultz said. “Greg made that happen for these kids.”`
The UDCCC’s greatest success thus far is the South Shore Urban Debate Project, which wrapped up its first season on Saturday, March 11, with an interscholastic debate tournament judged by University students and conducted in Cobb and Swift halls.
Cheyne and seven other University students began working as instructors in the after-school program just after winter break, working twice a week with fifth- and sixth- graders at Madison, O’Keeffe, Parkside, Powell and Shoesmith schools on the South Side.
About 12 students from each school voluntarily participated Cheyne said, noting that principals at each school helped him and his fellow University student-instructors identify which children would be ideal participants.
The students were eager, ready and incredibly well-prepared, Cheyne said.
Over the course of the last several weeks, nearly 70 fifth- and sixth-graders were educated and trained in debate, often participating in debates with their classmates.
“We allowed them to debate during the quarter pretty much on any topic they found interesting,” Cheyne said. Those topics included school uniforms, President Bush’s decisions and the government’s response to Hurricane Katrina.
At the debate tournament, the topic was civil liberties, specifically ethnic profiling. Cheyne said the affirmative team argued for the passage of the End Racial Profiling Act, while the negative team argued that passage of the act would give terrorists an upper-hand. “It’s essentially a classic security versus liberty debate,” said Cheyne.
A fifth-grade girl from Shoesmith School, arguing on the negative team was the tournament winner. “She won because her analysis of the situation was extremely insightful. She made analytical arguments that went unanswered and made a persuasive appeal on behalf of racial profiling,” said Cheyne.
“The growth and transformation in every single one of them was amazing,” Cheyne said. “They developed skills at a very impressive rate—speaking skills drastically improved, plus their confidence went through the roof.”
“One of these little guys said he was going to have to quit basketball because he had debate practice,” Hawkins said. “I thought to myself, that meant the South Shore Urban Debate Project must have gone really well.”
Hawkins noted he has spoken with many principals from other schools who seemed very interested in participating in the future.
“Everyone seems to recognize what a beautiful thing it is to see these young students learn and grow and stand on their own two feet,” he said.
Cheyne said he plans to expand the debate program next year, his final year in the College. Including additional schools and possibly having a second interscholastic tournament are two things Cheyne said he is considering.
“I can’t wait to do it all again.”