Check out AnnMarie’s Talk: We Need to Argue to Heal

Our founder AnnMarie Baines had the honor of speaking at SXSW EDU in Austin, Texas on March 7, 2024, where she discussed the importance of debate in advancing equity. We're excited to share the transcript and audio link of her talk below, along with insightful questions from educators in the audience. We hope you find these resources valuable in fostering a more inclusive educational environment.

Hi everyone! Thanks for coming to my session. My name is AnnMarie Baines and I am the founder of a nonprofit called The Practice Space in the San Francisco Bay Area, which elevates systemically marginalized voices through public speaking education for people of all ages. I personally used to be terrified of debate and it’s hard to believe it is my 23rd year coaching. I grew up in a small family in a small, loud house. We were always arguing about something, whether it was TV, the dishes, or life. When something didn’t work (especially dial up internet in the 90s), frustration quickly escalated into shouting and screaming. My dad was bipolar and it wasn’t easy. We all loved each other, but volume often felt like the only way to be heard. When it came to school, it was a totally different story. Being a good student meant following the rules. Being a girl meant being “good” and quiet. Growing up Filipina-American and raised in the church, I followed my mom’s directions: smile, work hard, be nice to teachers, make friends. But most of all, only speak when it’s your turn, and always raise your hand.

Loud at home and quiet at school, that’s just the way it worked. But as I entered middle and high school, I could feel my opinions bottled up inside. Speaking my mind was a scary thing: at home, it meant tears and at school, it meant trouble. With my friends, I was the listener. In class, I came off as shy. But I wasn’t shy: I just didn’t know what to say or when to say it. It wasn’t until my mom and my close friend urged me to join my high school speech and debate team that I learned I could have a different identity. Every weekend, I saw what it looked like to use your voice to capture people’s attention. The more I used my voice, the easier it became. Speaking my mind no longer meant tears, it meant getting awards for winning championship debate rounds. At first, my excitement for debate revolved around winning. But when I studied its applications to education, I discovered its potential for change.

I am here today to talk about why we can’t be afraid to argue and how debate, when done well, can be used to heal rifts and seek clarity and understanding. Debate may not always be the appropriate strategy to explore every topic – sometimes, it is better to tell stories, write poetry, or have a discussion. But in the classroom, we can’t avoid debate just because we are afraid.

Healing, Debate, Fear, and Democracy

First, let’s talk a little bit about healing. There is so much important work led by Black scholars, artists, and feminists, illustrating the vital connections between self-work and collective social justice work: Prentis Hemphill and their work on embodied learning and healing from societal trauma. adrienne maree brown and her work on self-care and pleasure. Tricia Hersey and her work as a leading advocate for the importance of rest in social justice work. Harvard professor Shawn Ginwright also talks about how rest is an act of freedom as we reconcile our inner journey with how we show up on the outside. Storytelling, poetry, and advocacy are important vehicles for communicating this journey. Putting our experiences into words requires inner reflection and rest to get into the headspace to figure out how we feel and how we want to share it. We need to incorporate more of these narrative, creative, and persuasive speaking formats into the classroom. Storytelling has the power to heal.

But debate? Hmm. When I first heard about debate as a student, the first thing that came to mind was shouting matches, speaking off the top of your head, and the very real possibility of losing in a public way. No thank you. Debate is scary. When we debate about things that are important to us, it is easy to take it personally – our very identity is at risk. When done badly, debating controversial issues can risk labeling us in a way that we don’t want to and can damage relationships. There is rarely good facilitation and it is so easy to feel like an impostor in debate – when you don’t feel qualified, you don’t want to speak at all.

Now that I’ve totally sold you on debate, let’s look at a different vision. Bob Litan of the Brookings Institution defines debate as “structured, civil discussion that involves at least two sides to an issue, focuses on substance, features time limits for each side, and compels speakers to persuade an audience about how to make informed choices, incorporate new information, and identify ways to reach consensus.” Good debate is when we help people listen, think critically, critique history, and make more informed choices, especially when voting and participating in democracy. He states, “Learning by individuals and organizations can’t happen unless people are open to understanding and incorporating new information, facts, or theories, and if appropriate, doing things differently, often changing their minds in the process.”

Litan doesn’t explicitly talk about self-healing in the way that the previously mentioned Black scholars do, as a critical piece of social justice work. He is, after all, a white economist and his arguments about debate are more about healing America as a whole by strengthening democracy. Still, he describes debate as a learning tool to repair rifts, restore open dialogue, and equip the next generation with the ability to listen critically in spite of division. By this definition, we cannot avoid debate if we want to change our damaged history. 

As Shawn Ginwright reminds us:“Healing is the capacity to restore our humanity and care for ourselves and others even in the midst of our fear. Healing is the only pathway to real justice because it requires that we take an honest look at what harmed us and pushes us to restore our humanity and finally move us confidently into a possible future.” Let's take the analogy of healing physically from an injury. Sometimes the best thing you can do is rest. But sometimes, you need to build muscle and address imbalances. We need to practice hard things, so our body is ready. By the same token, we need debate to help students get ready to tackle what is hard and what is harmful. We need debate to prepare students to critically support their viewpoints while engaging in deep listening. Avoiding debate because we are afraid to disagree puts students at a disadvantage, especially if they learn to choose silence over dialogue.

Origin Story

I first learned debate in a large, urban high school in California. At the time, it was one of the only public schools in the state to have a competitive team. Our team didn’t have funding from the district and was solely led by dedicated, volunteer teachers. The first time I walked into a debate class as a 14-year old student, I was shocked at how peaceful it was. The session was led by a chemistry teacher, but focused on philosophy. We wrestled with questions about individual vs collective rights, approaches to activism and social justice, and human nature as a whole. From Cornel West and Foucault to Kant and Marx, theory formed the foundation for all the subsequent topics we debated. We learned to define our perspectives, clarify definitions throughout a debate round, and follow a structure for our arguments and the round itself. The part of me that always felt so uncertain was soothed by the knowledge that there was a way to speak my mind and a place where I would still be loved, even when I disagreed.

At tournaments, my strength was put to the test. Even in the SF Bay Area, I was regularly one of the only Filipino students at debate tournaments, and one of 2 girls who were part of the top 15 debaters on the national circuit. Sometimes, I was even known as “the girl” and I was definitely the shortest. Debate was both intellectually and physically intimidating. One time, I even had an adult judge say, “You are too aggressive for a girl.” It is strange to think of this as a healing experience, but it was. I was thrust into hard situations, but I could come out of it knowing that I could recognize what happened and still hold onto my power. I learned how to fight back, but also when to let go. I learned how to process complex ideas and make sense of the debate in front of me, but I also learned how to apply that same thinking internally, like trying to make sense of my own mixed-race identity and feeling underrepresented and unheard.

Introducing Pivots and Perspective

In his book, The Four Pivots, Ginwright argues that a healing-centered way of life requires us to build our capacity to see humanity in those that are not like us. This means pivoting from problem-fixing to possibility creating. He describes how pivoting towards possibility means that we have to cultivate another outlook where we can see each other, even when we don’t agree. In the long road to healing our divisions, we have to be aware of the possibility that our perspective is limited. Sometimes, we are too close to see the whole picture. It is tempting to lean into the zero-sum game of “us vs them” and label groups of people negatively. Ginwright argues that this type of thinking comes with a psychic cost. Healing requires perspective. As he states, “Gaining perspective is not a matter of being right or wrong, but rather it just means that we pull back and become curious about a possible bigger picture.”

In the classroom, gaining perspective through debate begins with how we word debate topics. Debate topics need to both broaden our perspective on an issue and narrow the scope of what we will tackle at this moment. They need to be worded as sentences, with one side supporting the sentence as written and one side providing an alternative. We need to avoid undebateable topics, when two sides are not balanced or one side is made to defend beliefs that are fundamentally against their own histories, identities, and values. Making a Black student defend slavery as an “intellectual exercise” is not okay. Instead, debate topics must inspire productive conversations. As educators, the two most important questions to ask in debate are: What is the core issue that I want my class to explore? And: Is this going to be a productive debate?

I’ve had my share of unproductive debates. My biggest mistake was having the debate: “Resolved: Third graders are better than fourth graders” with some of our young speakers and having the whole thing dissolve into tears because it was way too personal. The topic was literally “us vs. them”. What I should have proposed is: “Resolved: Age is important.” This would have allowed us to take a step back and gain perspective on the heart of the issue. I made sure I didn’t make this mistake again when some of our teens wanted to argue whether Cristiano Ronaldo was better than Lionel Messi. Instead, I reframed the debate as: “Resolved: Sports teams with superstar celebrity players are better than those without them.” While debating personal examples is tempting, topics should be reframed to center nuance, so that people can even begin to have a conversation. Before the debate begins, have students define the key terms of the topic. This builds up the habit of seeking clarity of language.

In life, this level of formality can be hard, but the same principle still applies. Sometimes, when you feel a debate coming, it can be good to slip into “facilitator mode” and say something like, “Wait, before we continue, I just want to check that we are arguing about x, and that by x, we mean…” Checking for understanding by clarifying definitions is even more relevant in life. Exploring hypothetical situations by starting with the phrase, “So, let’s say…” can help you distance yourself for a moment from the deeply personal. I have always found definitions to be incredibly helpful when arguing in everyday life. I mean, how many times have you been in an argument about one thing and it was really about something else?


Outlook and the Three Positions

It is hard to talk to people that you don’t agree with. But in healing-centered work, Ginwright asks us, “How do we cultivate an outlook that allows us to listen to each other without judgment and try to see our mutual humanity across difference?” Taking this kind of outlook isn’t easy, but it doesn’t mean that we don’t get mad or take things personally. It means that we are able to take what he calls a “third position”. Ginwright defines first position as an outlook on a topic, articulating a clear point of view that you believe to be true. Second position is a competing outlook that pushes back on the first position. Basically, this is what debate is. Third position is where we are able to observe, listen, learn, and understand. We may have an opinion and an emotional response, we don’t abandon our views and we still acknowledge harms. But we also build our capacity to be an observer of issues.

In our work at The Practice Space, we focus on connections between literacy, agency, and voice. We view public speaking as a lever for equity and a gateway to leadership and liberation.  We spend a lot of time designing curriculum and leading programs in and out of schools and workplaces to help people communicate in a way that is clear, relatable, memorable, and true to themselves. We offer professional development to help teachers facilitate equity as an environment, where classrooms can be brave and safe spaces for student voice. We pay teens to learn to coach our young speakers, who start debating at a young age and we have now served 2800 participants in 7 years.

Teaching students to articulate the first position, where you clearly state your point of view, is hard on its own. This involves teaching the fundamental structure of an argument: Claim, Warrant, and Impact. Similar to the popular Claim-Evidence-Reasoning structure, a claim is an opinion statement and a warrant is the evidence and reasoning that you use to support it. The added piece in debate is the Impact, where you state why your claim matters, what benefits or drawbacks it leads to, or just end with: “Therefore…” Take the following example: I believe that dogs are the best companions (claim). I believe this is true because there are many examples of dogs protecting and caring for their owners in times of crisis (warrant). Because of this protection and care, humans can lead a happier life (impact).

In the classroom, we weave in a lot of little warm-ups and skill drills to encourage students to practice argument structure. All it takes is 5 minutes. Initially, have one student say a claim and another say a warrant to support it by saying, “Yes, and…” Then, you get to practice “blowing up the balloon”, where one person says what it leads to and another says what that leads to, and another says what that leads to. Let’s try it out. (audience example)

So that’s the first position. The second position follows the same structure. Once you set up a debate topic, make sure to set up the rules of engagement. Just like in sports, debaters need to start off on equal footing. We have to know the rules, the flow, the protocol. All debates boil down to a section of opening speeches, a section of questions, a section of responses, and a section of summary. After learning warm-up activities, I always double down on teaching structure, first through easy topics and progressing to more important issues. I also teach students to signpost by saying which argument they are going to refute – “they said this, so I say this.” It helps them specify and organize their thinking and makes it easier for the listeners.

Speaking of the listeners, the third position is the hardest part. Ironically, the best way to practice observing without judgment is to practice judging. Have students be judges and teach them rigorous note-taking. In debate, there’s a style of note-taking called “flowing”, where you write down the arguments in a single column and then line up the responses next to each argument to see the “flow” of the debate. I take notes for students on the board first and prompt them to remove all their preconceived opinions and only look at what was said. I have students circle the strongest arguments and figure out which ones still stand. The judges must support their decision with what is on the flow, even if they don’t personally agree.

After the debate is over, one of the most important parts of pivoting towards perspective and possibility is to have a real-talk reflection. Ask students, “What happened in the debate? How did it feel? What do we wish we had done to get our point across? Have we changed our minds about anything?” They can do this as a written reflection, or a class discussion. This is where the learning happens; if we don’t reflect, then debates are just about us vs. them. You need a classroom culture that welcomes nuance. Ask students to imagine what would have made the debate better – would they have revised the topic or spent more time on a certain part of the issue? Ask them to describe how they might take what they learned in the debate to advocate for something to change in the world. For example, if we were arguing, “Age is important”, we might reflect on how we might create a world where age was never an issue.

Debate Drives Equity

We may think we don’t have time, but a place to start is to look for any place where you might have a discussion and think about how to reframe it as a debate. As educators, we have an obligation to create space for students to practice debate because there may not be an opportunity for them to learn it elsewhere. Competitive debate is still done largely in private schools with homogenous student populations, even with movements to diversify the activity. Students who are systemically marginalized have the most to gain from knowing how to own their voice and navigate challenges. School is the time to learn this. In life, most debates don’t have a facilitator. Often, we don’t leave any time for nuance; it’s easier to just label people and move on. Debate feels too complicated. You just want to know if your friend wants cheese on their burger or not, you don’t want to debate the value of cheese. We need to be interested in learning and have the strength and skill to have a productive conversation. Increasing the participation of diverse learners in debate interjects new perspectives into old narratives.

When it comes to debate and equity, we also have to prepare students for the reality they might face. Sometimes, in life, when we ask,“Is this going to be a productive debate?” the answer is no. This question builds our muscle for recognizing when a space and a situation can handle controversy. When we feel unsafe, we have to give ourselves permission to leave the conversation. It is okay not to speak, especially when the power dynamics are oppressive. There are some people that we can’t debate with, and that’s okay. The point is, we need to be able to make that choice on our own terms and not just choose silence by default. Making that choice means you know what good debate looks like.

It is scary to put yourself out there, and students who have been pushed to the margins have even more at stake. I always tell my students to be “60% ready”. 100% ready means that you aren’t adapting to the situation and sets an unrealistic expectation for perfection. 60% gives you permission to try and sometimes fail. The wonderful thing about doing debate a lot is that you will inevitably fail. In high school, I failed at debate for two years before I started doing well. I cried a lot, but I had people to comfort me. Outside of the competitive debate world, it’s hard to do a lot of debate. This is why we need debate across the curriculum and why we do our work at The Practice Space all the way from K-12. We can’t heal if we are afraid of failure.

I want to end with a quote from a 16-year student in our book, Amplify Student Voices. He says: “Debate introduces you to new perspectives. The opinions of children in my experience tend to be almost always the same as their parents or are strongly motivated by society. By researching and discussing both sides, you as the debater are now able to come to your own conclusion about where your opinion lies. Even when I don’t win the round (actually, especially when I don’t win the round), I learn so much about a topic that I haven’t ever really thought of. It can truly alter the student’s perspective, challenging their assumptions about society, providing them with tools they can use to form opinions on other topics. Debate is truly life-changing in terms of what it can do to developing minds.”

Questions from the Audience: 

Audience Member: I work at an elementary school. First of all, my daughter's in debate and it's really transformed her confidence, because she's a shy person. She's not one to always take up space. So it's been great for her. I wonder what your opinion is on, like, when we can get started. Our debate program is only for 5th and 6th. But I just feel like, hey, there's things you can do in every grade level. What would be your advice on that? 

AnnMarie: Yeah, so we actually have programs at The Practice Space, direct service, after school programs, starting in kindergarten. Kindergarten debate is very funny but it's also very important. They're so honest. So it's really about switching up the format. From kindergarten through second grade, we usually are doing kind of more of a Q&A. Like, what do you think about this? Here we go. What do you think about that? So it's kind of like a little panel. Then when we reach third grade, that's when we really see that students can start structuring their arguments. So we do a lot of Congress debates, which is like a whole class style of debate, where students get to come up with their own bills, and then they argue, they get to choose their side for or against, and they have different questions. It's a pretty easy format, and the way you win is by participating a lot. So it kind of encourages that mindset and they can write their own bills. And so students have done bills about climate change, but they also have done others. I think my favorite was one about how to punish porch pirates from stealing your UPS packages.

It can be really fun because you're bringing in student choice into the classroom. Then starting in, like you said, fifth and sixth grade, that's when we start really going into the more competitive debate formats. At 10 or 11 years old then you just keep on ramping up the timing of the speech. I started off my career as a special education teacher and when I applied debate in my classroom, I often found that it was just about lengthening the preparation time and giving them partners or groups to prep with to offer that extra support. I'm glad your daughter's in debate.

Audience Member: I have a little bit of the opposite question. Can you speak a little bit on your experience with older folks new to debate and respecting differences of opinions and just following that process at The Practice Space? I'd love to hear.  

AnnMarie: Most of the people who come to The Practice Space, it's not by design, but actually most of the people we work with are women and women leaders we have classes for. Like debate for adults and things like that. Often what we start off with is actually a lot of healing work because so many people have had experiences feeling like an imposter, that their opinions didn't matter, “I'm not qualified to speak on that,” “I didn't study that,” “everyone else has more of an opinion than me.” So we disrupt that and we also reflect and process it. Then after that, it's really about, again, the topics. The topics matter a lot. It's so tempting to argue personal examples of things, but that's where people are really locked into their ideas, even in our political system, arguing like one candidate versus another isn't as productive as a debate. Instead, it's about actually instead backing up and removing all of those labels that people are already attached to, and zeroing in on the issue. That's even more important with adults than it is with students, because they have more years of being latched in. Then we just do the same thing. We do a lot of back and forth and then we talk a lot about how to apply this to life. Because in life you don't have that back and forth. Even for me as an experienced debater, I struggle in life when debates just come out of nowhere. Then you're trying to wrestle with speaking on the spot, but maybe you don't know as much about a topic and you want to go away and research it first. I teach people to pause and take a moment and say, “actually, no. I would love to hear your views and ask questions, but we're going to table that conversation and then revisit it if possible.”  That gives you that prep time. 

Audience Member: I'm a special educator and also the parent of a child with autism. I'm just wondering what are some strategies you use to support children with communication differences in accessing debate? Then kind of like in the second part of the question: have you seen any benefits for kids learning to listen better to give more space to their peers who might communicate differently?

AnnMarie: Yes, absolutely. Not a shameless plug, but my first book was called Unlearning Disability. I studied students who had invisible disabilities, learning disabilities, autism, and followed them for two years across different contexts to track how they viewed themselves and how they saw themselves as smart or not smart in some settings versus others. Debate was actually one of the most powerful settings because for students with autism, and there are a lot in the debate world, it's so comforting to have that structure. You know when you can start, when you are supposed to listen, and you can follow that along the way. They end up excelling because you know what the social rules are. It also helps their peers listen to them. It helps you apply your expertise in a way where, actually, in my studies, students' disability labels became a lot less relevant because it was them being able to give power to their own opinions and voice.

Audience member: One more question. I work with sort of a different style of debate. It's called measureless style, and one of the things we focus on is identifying people's interests rather than their positions. Because positions can just be kind of, you get kind of stuck in them, and you defend them, and you polarize, kind of like you were describing earlier. So if by focusing on interests, you really get to the underlying being that's informing which can be culture, it can be even invisible things. I'm hearing you talk about a lot of things in the same way that I do. So I'm just curious what your reaction is to that. 

AnnMarie: Yes, so our theory, and this is what's in Amplify Student Voices, is that if we want to diversify the conversation, we have to have diverse forms of expression. And it all has to be driven by student voice. So, I just talked about debate today because that was the topic for today, but I think leading off first with storytelling, talking about your own experiences, having a discussion, or even weaving in things like poetry or, or informative presentations where you're talking about your interests. Then, as a teacher, you're gathering all that data about all the things your students are listening to, and you can start crafting all those debate topics to then infuse more student interest, and therefore increase student engagement, which is something that we've found. So, I always, even if I only have, like, five minutes, I get lots of student ideas and interests on the board. I ask them to talk about what interests them about it and then I scurry away, and I design all of these little debate prompts that then take it further, so you're not just attached to your interests, you're making new ones. 

Thank you so much for coming to the session!

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