At one point or another in the virtual learning experience, students may have found themselves in a Zoom call speaking into the depths of black muted screens. Known by students and educators as "breakout rooms", this effort to sustain group work and cooperation among our peers while online was not always embraced as many students can report times they were met with silence in these breakout rooms. Could these moments of reluctance to unmute ourselves and speak up be a manifestation of underlying fears of public speaking? After all public speaking refers to addressing either the public or a collection of peers.
How is it that addressing our peers can feel more intimidating behind a screen? One possible common factor between addressing a virtual classroom and a public crowd is an audience largely made up of strangers. It is very common to not know the students in your breakout room in contrast to in person contact which builds familiarity. Also, in person learning offers the space for group members freely talk at once amongst themselves whereas Zoom etiquette typically allows one speaker to be unmuted at a time. This formality can heighten focus on speakers for what would otherwise be simple comments or questions. To every student finishing this 2020-2021 school year, you have succeeded in communicating to strangers your thoughts, ideas and questions in courses dealing with difficult concepts and this alone is a major achievement to be recognized!
Here in Chess and Community, one of the activities we have developed to help our youth grow comfortable in their public speaking abilities is our Debate Program in partnership with the Demosthenian Literary Society, one of only two debate societies at the University of Georgia. While the program has also transitioned to virtual attendance, Zoom has not slowed down the outstanding leadership of C&C Debate Coach Narke Norton, who has worked with C&C youth for 4 years. An alumnus of both UGA and Demosthenians, Norton’s signature advice to beginners in debate is: “Tell us what you know, what you’ve researched, what you're experienced in and outside of school. This a simplistic picture of debate, a talk, a discussion, an expression of thought.”
For Norton, communication is a valuable tool for conflict resolution. In day-to-day life, students are learning to navigate many forms of conflict, be it with their classmates, teammates, co-workers, or family members. As chess encourages students to think before they move, debate teaches them how to think before speaking particularly. In the most recent debate on April 22, 202 , four C&C youth, Brandon, Jameson, Iza, and Dionne voted the following two topics for debate: (1) Should the film industry boycott t he state of Georgia in response to passage of unpopular legislation? (2) Should students have the right to interview educators before their hire? Debate differs from public speaking, in that students not only express their ideas, but they must also be ready to defend them! Norton challenges each speaker on the affirmative and negative side to a period to respond to questioning regarding their stance.
Providing a sound defense for one’s ideas is helpful in many disciplines beyond Law, the typical field associated with debate. In various creative arts, being able to effectively communicate a creative pitch can help an artist garner support by helping others to see and believe in their vision. On the other hand, in the sciences, many scientific journals in both the soft and hard sciences, require scientific studies to undergo Peer Review, a process in which the study is passed through the hands of numerous experts in the same field as the author. Together, they determine whether the work meets certain standards of quality such as: Are claims backed by evidence? Is the evidence presented using logical reasoning and well-designed studies? etc. This process of reviewing a scientific argument closely resembles the process of questioning the speaker’s argument in debate.
Norton has the privilege of working not only with C&C youth but with two outstanding current members of the Demosthenian Literary Society Du Obichi and Mikella Gassart. Mikel
la Gassart, the honorary President of Demosthenians, is a 2nd year Law Student and Du Obichi is a Pre-Law student currently in his 4th year studying English. I had the opportunity to speak with Du, who has been active in C&C Debate for the past year, his senior year.
The Demosthenian Literary Society founded in 1803, is among the oldest debate societies in the United States, would you say this is a source of pride for its members?
Du: Yes I would! It's nice to be a part of such an established and historic organization at UGA. And I love to see how it has evolved and changed for the better since its inception.
Was public speaking ever a fear of yours? If yes, what helped you overcome it?
Du: Public speaking was, and honestly still is, a fear of mine. It's always pretty scary getting up in front of a large group of people and speaking, no matter how much you prepare beforehand. I didn't necessarily overcome this fear, as in get rid of it. I think it's always going to be there. But I definitely learned how to maintain and control that fear. Throughout my time inDemosthenians, I learned that fear is actually essential to bravery and that true bravery is being afraid to do something and doing it anyway. And by being around so many great people who taught me these lessons, I am able to overcome my fear time and time again.
Demosthenians runs on Thursday nights from 7:30 pm as late as 10:30! It is also open to any UGA student, do you have any notable memories or favorite debates from your time in the society?
Du: One of my favorite debates was when we debated whether math was red or blue and I delivered an entire presentation (with visuals) as to why math is objectively blue. My favorite memory in general would have to be our Halloween-themed pointless debate where we all dressed up and gave pointless debates. I dressed up in a Finn the Human onesie.
Do you ever find the objective of "winning" unhelpful or problematic in discourse? Du: Yes. I wouldn't say the point of debate and discourse should be winning. I think it should be about challenging yourself and outdoing yourself rather than trying to best others. Especially if you are working on improving as a speaker.
What has been your favorite part about working with C&C youth? Du: My favorite thing about working with C&C youth was just being able to see so many young people who are so dedicated and hopeful. All of them were such amazing speakers and they each had their own unique personalities. I know I was one of the debate leaders and I was supposed to be teaching them, but I ended up learning a lot from these kids.
What advice would you give to a middle or high school student curious about debate? Du: My advice would be to not compare your speeches to other debaters. Don't try to be like anyone else. Be the best you. And don't worry about being afraid. Literally everyone is going to be afraid. And it's okay to be afraid. As long as you don't let that fear control you.