This article originally appeared in the summer 2019 issue of Harker Magazine.
Roshni Bhatnagar ’11 doesn’t recall why she was drawn to speech and debate during her sophomore year at Harker, beyond noticing that other students seemed to be having a lot of fun on the team. “I just know that I enjoyed it immensely once I joined,” she said. She competed in Lincoln-Douglas debate, a one-on-one format that emphasizes logic, ethics and philosophy. Competitions offered a reward for the weeks of hard work conducting research and writing arguments. “Debate was a phenomenal opportunity to be exposed to different ideas, to learn how to compete and to have fun traveling to new places,” Bhatnagar said.
She also noted that Harker’s team and coaches were encouraging and supportive. “Whether I won or lost, it was always OK, because we were encouraged to see each debate as a step in the road and a learning opportunity.”
Bhatnagar had been out of high school for several years before truly appreciating what she learned as a student debater at Harker. “I developed strong critical-thinking and problem-solving skills, as well as the mental agility to think quickly and to recognize patterns,” said Bhatnagar, who will be an internal medicine resident at UCLA this fall. “Thinking strategically and analytically at such a young age was key to my development as an excellent communicator and listener, skills which serve me well in my work with patients now.”
Hundreds of current Harker students are gaining the skills Bhatnagar spoke of – persuasion, organization of thoughts and ideas, intensive research and information literacy, poise and presentation – while finding success on the national speech and debate stage. The students are guided by the expertise of Harker’s speech and debate teachers Jenny Achten, Greg Achten and Scott Odekirk at the upper school, and Shania Hunt and JJ Kim at the middle school, who are in turn aided by numerous coaches (several of whom are Harker alumni).
Launched in 1998 when the upper school was founded, the speech and debate program has grown into one of Harker’s most popular student activities, with 115 upper schoolers and 175 middle schoolers involved this year. It is one of the best programs in the nation, consistently sending students to national competitions and winning both individual and team national titles.
As both an academic subject and an extracurricular activity at Harker, speech and debate emphasizes the connection between high-intensity learning inside the classroom and intellectual competition outside of class. “Our academic curriculum is largely about teaching kids to think critically about modern sociocultural controversies,” Odekirk said. “We translate that learning into the applied format of extracurricular competition, which adds so much to students’ intellectual and personal growth.”
Upper school students are required to take a course in the speech and debate department – at the introductory, intermediate or competitive level – in order to compete on the team, while middle schoolers can take speech and debate courses as electives. Upper schoolers mainly prepare and practice for tournaments during class time, while middle schoolers meet three times a week after school.
“Harker’s program is unique because of the dedication of a highly qualified faculty that is solely focused on teaching and coaching speech and debate,” said Jenny Achten, speech and debate department chair for grades 6-12. “We also receive incredible programmatic resources and support.”
Harker is a member of the National Speech & Debate Association, which chooses topics for student debaters, sponsors tournaments, and offers conferences and resources for teachers and coaches. Harker students compete in four categories of debate, including Lincoln-Douglas, congressional, public forum and policy (see page 41 sidebar for descriptions). Students choose from a variety of speech categories, depending on their personal interest, including original oratory, dramatic interpretation, impromptu, extemporaneous and humorous interpretation. Speeches are either memorized in advance of a competition or prepared quickly (in 20 or 30 minutes) during the tournament. Harker students compete at 35 to 50 tournaments a year, though no one student attends all of them.
“We believe students should have the freedom to select the number of tournaments and events of their choosing, depending on interest and time and how well they can balance other commitments,” Jenny Achten said.
The competitive season runs the entire academic year, and this year, students have competed at tournaments in Chicago, Miami, Los Angeles, Phoenix, New Haven, Conn., and Jacksonville, Fla., as well as at local and regional tournaments throughout California (see page 39 sidebar for highlights). Eleven Harker students qualified for the postseason Tournament of Champions, held in late April at the University of Kentucky, and five students will compete at the National Speech & Debate Tournament in Dallas in mid-June.
“Tournaments don’t have age requirements so if a younger student – say a seventh grader – is advanced enough, they can compete at the varsity level, rather than junior varsity or novice,” said Hunt. “They may be in a little over their heads at first, but they learn fast.” It’s fairly common for upper school debaters to attend middle school practices to mentor and coach the younger students. Ariav Misra, grade 7, welcomed support from Harker’s upper school students after struggling at a varsity tournament in congressional debate. Harker’s older debaters help Misra with prepping bills and resolutions and give advice on how to compete effectively. “I love the sense of community on the team,” Misra said.
Jason Lin, grade 10, agreed. “The team has created a truly unique, wholesome dynamic where the advanced debaters don’t hesitate to help novices with whatever they need,” said Lin, who participates in congressional debate. “Older students are even enthusiastic about helping underclassmen with things not related to speech and debate, like math homework.”
The program has had such an impact on students that recent alumni often return from college to serve as assistant coaches. This year, Anika Jain ’17 and Ayush Midha ’15 have assisted the team as time allows.
Jain, who just finished her second year studying economics and social policy analysis at Rice University, recalled her days of being inspired by older debaters. “They were so skilled in argumentation and in spreading, which is a fast-talking technique used in policy debate, and that motivated me to improve my skills,” she said, noting that she hopes her assistance with current Harker debaters provides similar motivation. “It’s great to advise students on aspects of debate that confused me as a middle schooler.” Midha debated for Harvard University while earning a degree in human developmental and regenerative biology. He plans to attend medical school after spending a year in research at Boston’s Joslin Diabetes Center. As a high school student, he competed in policy debate and attended summer debate amps, intensively researching a topic and practicing debate with 30 other students. “Debate offers an interesting duality of a hypercompetitive activity that turns into a form of deep collaboration,” he said.
Midha also mentored middle schoolers while at Harker, and this year he watched two of his former mentees (now in grades 11 and 12) reach the quarterfinals of a national championship tournament. “That was the proudest moment of my involvement in Harker debate,” he said.
Alexandru Iftimie ’03 recalls lugging around several 20-gallon tubs of documents at debate competitions in the days before digital files were readily available. “We had to be prepared for every possible argument,” he said. “Those tubs contained piles of highlighted research at our fingertips.” Iftimie debated for the University of Southern California – coaching Harker students during the summer – and earned a J.D. from Yale University. He recently left the U.S. Department of Justice to return to the Bay Area as an attorney for a private-sector law firm.
“I still use the critical-thinking, publics peaking and advocacy skills I learned from debate,” Iftimie said. “Those skills have been tremendous assets to me as a lawyer.”
Harker’ speech and debate program wouldn’t be as successful as it is without the students who commit to learning debate techniques and skills while conducting hours and hours of research.
“Speech and debate are academic competitions that allow our very bright students to apply their knowledge and test their wits against their peers, all while getting immediate feedback,” said Greg Achten.
Students join the program for a variety of reasons, from a desire to learn more about current events to wanting to lessen public speaking anxiety to their parents suggesting it.
Oftentimes, they’re hooked by the first taste of competition. Krish Mysoor, grade 7, tried speech and debate at his mother’s insistence and attended seven tournaments before he broke into the quarterfinals. “Taking all of those losses early on taught me that I was in it for the experience and the love of this brain sport more than I was into just winning,” he said. He has since seen more success, making it to a bid round for the Tournament of Champions this year.
Harker’s teaching and coaching staff works to de-emphasize a “winner take all” attitude in speech and debate. “We talk a lot about realistic expectations,” Greg Achten said. “We talk about goals not associated with wins or losses, such as achieving a better understanding of an argument or improving in a particular debate technique.”
Competing in speech and debate provides tangible rewards for students beyond wins and losses, noted Haris Hosseini, grade 12, who recently earned third place in original oratory at the Tournament of Champions.
“I’ve become a better speaker, writer and friend,” Hosseini said. “My capacity for empathy has deepened by listening to those wildly different in background and circumstance than me.”
Madison Huynh, grade 11, joined the debate program in sixth grade because she wanted to have intellectual discussions on topics beyond what she was learning in class. “I love debate’s basis in curiosity, research and strategy,” said Huynh, who finished fifth in the nation in policy debate at the National Debate Coaches Association National Tournament in April.
“From learning how to work on a team to developing strong critical thinking skills, being a part of speech and debate is truly a unique experience,” Huynh said. “It offers education and real-world skills in the most fun, intellectually spirited way possible.”
A banner year for speech and debate
In 2018-19, Harker students participated in dozens of speech and debate
tournaments across the country. After achieving great results during the
fall and winter, students continued to shine on the national speech and
debate stage this spring. Here are a few highlights of their successes:
Western Junior Varsity and Novice National Championship
(held at San Francisco State University, March 9-10)
- Harker set a tournament history record by having the top six finishers
in JV Lincoln-Douglas debate – Deven Shah, Akhilesh Chegu, Karoun
Kaushik, Arnav Dani, all grade 9, and Krish Mysoor and Ansh Sheth,
both grade 7 – close out two quarterfinals and all of the semifinals,
making them co-champions. Shah also was the top speaker in the
- Angela Gao, grade 9, novice Lincoln-Douglas debate champion
- Ayan Nath and Dhruv Saoji, both grade 9, finalists in JV public forum
- Aimee Wang and Alina Yuan, both grade 9, quarterfinalists in JV public
- Caden Lin and Vedant Kenkare, both grade 9, semifinalists in novice
National Debate Coaches Association National Championship
(held at Glenbrook South High School near Chicago, April 13-15)
- Anusha Kuppahally, grade 12, and Madison Huynh, grade 11,
quarterfinalists in policy debate
- Sachin Shah and Quentin Clark, both grade 11, finished in the top 20
in Lincoln-Douglas debate
- Akshay Manglik, grade 10, named the tournament’s 10th overall
The Tournament of Champions
(held at the University of Kentucky, April 27-28)
- Avi Gulati, grade 11, national champion in original oratory
- Haris Hosseini, grade 12, third place in original oratory
- Nikki Solanki, grade 11, third place in program oral interpretation
- Alycia Cary, grade 12, semifinalist in original oratory
- David Feng, grade 11, Andrew Sun, grade 10, and Nakul Bajaj, grade
11, semifinalists in congressional debate
National Speech & Debate Association Academic All-Americans
(honored for academic excellence, competitive speech and debate
success, and outstanding character and leadership)
- Nikhil Dharmaraj, Anusha Kuppahally, Kelly Shen, Cindy Wang, Clarissa
Wang, all grade 12
•Avi Gulati, Annie Ma, Sachin Shah, Nikki Solanki, all grade 11
Marla Holt is a freelance writer based in Minnesota