Sarah Haworth (from left), Maddie Blair and Ally Saharic practice for the Jan. 26 tournament as members of the Blaine K-8 School debate team. Photo by Margot Saharic

Sarah Haworth (from left), Maddie Blair and Ally Saharic practice for the Jan. 26 tournament as members of the Blaine K-8 School debate team. Photo by Margot Saharic

Should fourth- and fifth-grade students do homework? While many might think this is a no-brainer, approximately 75 students in Queen Anne and Magnolia public elementary schools formally debated this topic for the last several weeks, via a new after-school debate program, DebateAble.

Other topics being debated: Is Justin Bieber better than One Direction? Should kids have cell phones? Should students wear school uniforms?

But the program has little to do with the respective topic: DebateAble teaches students how to form an argument, refute the opposing position and argue in favor of the other side.

“We always emphasize development of critical-thinking skills,” said Christine Segat, co-founder and director of DebateAble. “The program also instills an appreciation for the value of teamwork. Debate is not necessarily a competition — it’s also a learning process.”

Bringing debate back

DebateAble, now in its first session, was molded after a former nonprofit debate program in Queen Anne and Magnolia schools, Successful Schools in Action, which closed in 2011, after six years. Since then, the Queen Anne and Magnolia elementary schools have not had debate.  

“When it closed its doors, I had many people tell me, ‘Can you bring it back? It was a successful, wonderful program,’” Segat said, who was part of the former program. “And I thought, what if we came up with a similar program?” 

DebateAble was launched in January 2012, with two intended sessions per school year, each 12 weeks long. The program took place in four public elementary schools in Queen Anne and Magnolia; it is now offered at all public schools in the two neighborhoods, including Blaine, Coe, Hay, Lawton and Queen Anne elementary schools.

Each school has one to two classes, with 15 students each. The classes meet once a week after school for 45 minutes.

Each session will culminate with a debate tournament between the schools. The current session’s debate will take place Jan. 26, from 9 a.m. to noon, at Catherine Blaine K-8 School (2550 34th Ave. W.). About 250 to 300 people are expected to attend.

“They are learning to know different points of view and question them, rather than being offended in the way an adult would,” said co-founder Margot  Saharic. “They have polite discourse on any topic, rather than an emotional one, and are appreciative of other points of view. These are skills every adult in America could use.

“When I’m working with a group, a highlight for me is watching it click when they get it and watching them recognize they have the ability to put together an argument and spin it around to argue another position using similar arguments,” she added.

The program has five coaches for the five classes. The founders purposefully employed teachers as the coaches, who are then trained to coach debate.

“We felt we could teach curriculum to coaches but can’t teach coaches to be great with kids,” Saharic explained.

Elizabeth Kruse, a co-founder, said she took the best debate curriculum elements from around the country — aside from the former program — and then modified them to cater to fourth- and fifth-grade students. 

“We feel like, with this age, debate can make a huge difference as they move into high school and middle school and then to college,” Kruse said. “To be able to take both sides of an argument is to be empathetic.”  

Learning the art of debating rather than focusing on subject matter is key, Kruse said: “They argued a lot of basic things but are beginning to understand both sides to every argument, which is huge — like, ‘what do you like better: dogs or cats? What’s better: stairs or escalators?’ But we work on developing how to think analytically.”

High hopes

The program is funded by student tuition; sponsors will help cover the costs of the tournament.

A limited number of scholarships are available, depending on how much the respective school is willing to donate. Students were recruited for the program like they were for all other extracurricular activities the schools offer.

The founders plan to take the program to other public and perhaps private schools.

For the next session, starting in February, the main topic has not been chosen yet, and students might vote on what they’d like.

“We’re psyched-out about the program,” Kruse said. “There’s not a whole lot in the United States that’s focused on elementary-school kids. But we have feedback from teachers saying it’s effective on how they’re performing in their writing classes and other subjects. It can make a huge difference in kids this age.”

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