This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
More than 130 middle school debaters representing 11 schools across Philadelphia gathered at Masterman High School this week to debate the merits of the electoral college system. As part of the Eagles’ Community Monday initiative, Philadelphia Eagles defensive end Aziz Shittu served as a judge in the final round of debates and participated in the awards ceremony as a special surprise for debaters.
The debate teams operate in partnership with After School Activities Partnerships (ASAP) Philly, whose staff members select past high school debate topics for the middle school debate clubs. This semester’s topic proposed a resolution that a direct popular vote should replace the electoral college system. “It’s very relevant, and it needs to be discussed. I feel like if adults and government officials are discussing it, then why can’t kids?” said Messiah Toure, an 8th grader from Young Scholars Charter School. Coaches said this issue was already something their students were thinking about. “Like everybody else, even though they’re kids and can’t vote, they’re still impacted by the results of elections. I think it’s something that they cared about and were curious about even before it became the topic for the debate,” said Jesse Staab, Greenfield Elementary debate coach. The tournament was the largest that ASAP Philly had ever hosted for middle school teams. The participating schools included Masterman, Mastery Charter School Hardy Williams, Overbrook Educational Center, Boys’ Latin Charter School, Friends Select, Young Scholars Charter School, Greenfield Elementary School, Hamilton Elementary School, Freire Charter School, the Laboratory Charter School, and Richard Allen Preparatory Charter School. ASAP Philly serves more than 350 Philadelphia students in 45 middle and high school debate clubs. The organization also hosts a two-week summer institute where students can practice their critical thinking and debate skills. “The summer program was my first introduction to debate,” said Anthony Enoch, an 8th grader at Young Scholars. “I used to like to argue, but now my arguments are more direct,” Enoch said. The competitors use the public forum debate style in two-member teams. A coin toss determines which sides of the issue teams will argue. The teams’ first speakers present their cases, followed by a “crossfire” question-and-answer discussion between the two. After the second speakers for each team conclude, a “grand crossfire” is held among all four debaters. High school debate members and government students from Masterman High School, as well as ASAP Philly staff, served as judges. “I’m wondering how much research [the middle school students] did and how prepared they are to talk about it. I’m looking for them to bring in some history about why it was started and about how the electoral college works,” said Masterman senior Julia Shevchuk and former debate team member. Debaters competed in three rounds, each lasting 30 minutes. Each debate has a winner, and awards are given to the schools that report the most wins over all three rounds. “Our goal is not to answer the question posed in the topic, but to have students engaged in persuasive speaking on both sides of the issue,” said Sara Morningstar, ASAP Philly debate manager and partner liaison. Masterman placed first at Monday’s event, and 7th graders Keziah Miller and José DeSilva were named the top debaters within their team. Masterman will hold this ranking until the monthly debates pick up again next semester, when debaters will face a new topic. The Eagles’ Shittu addressed the students at the award ceremony and encouraged them to continue pursuing an activity that they loved. Shittu helped raffle off prizes including a signed football, an Eagles Rubik’s cube, and a magnetic dart board. Ronairah Shedrick, an 8th grader at Young Scholars Charter School, has been competing in debate since 6th grade and wants to be a lawyer when she grows up. “One reason why I like debate is that we get to learn about the outside world around us. If we don’t know about certain things, we get to learn about it in debate and we can use it for things that we learn inside an actual classroom,” Shedrick said.