University of Memphis Middle School debate team wins national championship

May 6, 2020 - The University of Memphis Middle School debate team won the public debate forum finals of the 2020 National Urban Debate League Middle School Nationals in a two-day virtual event this past weekend. It marked the first time UofM Middle students competed in a multiple-day national tournament.

The synchronous tournament featured live debates through video conference as University Middle’s Elijah Schaffzin and Rayelle Burnett defeated Early Scholars Speech & Debate from New York in the final round of public forum debate with a 2-1 decision in front of a three-judge panel.

“Winning the final round of the Urban Debate League Middle School Nationals is a special accomplishment, and it speaks to the dedication of these students, who have poured many hours into research, writing, practicing and watching tapes of past debate rounds,” said Lindsey Warden, speech and debate coach/social studies teacher at University Middle.

“In order to excel in speech and debate, students must model all 16 of the core competencies that University Middle School teaches and evaluates.”

The debate topic was “Resolved: The United States should replace means tested welfare programs with a universal basic income.”

“We participated in a flip-side debate, which means that the students had to be prepared to debate either side of this topic,” said Warden. “In the final round, they won on the affirmative side.”

Schaffzin and Burnett debated in a grueling eight total rounds in two days, while University Middle’s Arya Debes and Aura Kumar, both bronze semifinalists, debated in seven. Each round lasts between 45 minutes to an hour.

The national tournament consisted of five preliminary rounds, in which the students debated synchronously from 9 am-4:30 pm on Saturday. Students “broke” past preliminaries into bracketed elimination rounds on Sunday.

Both University Middle teams entered the bronze bracket on Sunday and competed in two elimination rounds, defeating two teams from Oklahoma, Union Middle School and Thoreau Demonstration Academy, in the quarterfinals.

“Our first year at University Middle has been nothing short of incredible,” said Sally Parish, UofM’s associate vice president for educational initiatives. “Our students and faculty have persevered through unique challenges and have remained dedicated to their academic pursuits, embracing the transition to virtual learning and online engagement.

“The success of our debate team is a great example of that and is an example of the type of school we have built at University Middle. One that is resilient and focused on facing the world’s problems head on with enthusiasm, integrity and ingenuity. I am proud of these students and grateful for the partnership of their families, and the tireless efforts of our school faculty.”

University Middle’s 15-member competition squad is supported by the school’s speech and debate elective which consists of approximately 32 students. Other members of the competition squad include Daphne Arendt, Zoha Askari, Darrell Clark, Eli Flack, London Hamilton, Sophia Henderson, MC Hitt, Liana Nuckolls, Joaquin Perez-Bahloul, Brayden Spann and Kennedy Woods.

The team is coached by Warden and volunteer assistant Donald Warden, who is a PhD student in the University of Memphis School of Public Health.

“From resilience to cultural competency, from quantitative reasoning to critical reading, from peer leadership to effective expression, these students embody what it means to be a University Middle Tiger,” said Walden. “Through approaching debate creatively and by using every round as an opportunity to speak their truths, our students have performed with passion and excellence, and we are extremely proud.”

University Middle’s participation in the national tournament was subject to approval by the Metro Memphis Urban Debate League. It was granted permission to enter two teams in the national tournament, having been recognized in local tournaments this semester for outstanding performance.

Although there isn’t an international Urban Debate League competition, University Middle’s students will be invited to participate in at least three more opportunities this school year, including a 6th-12th grade tournament hosted by Binghamton University and the National Speech & Debate Association’s Middle School Challenge.