By Sherry Posnick-Goodwin
Jefferson Lau listens as Anthony Valentin Fuentes makes his argument in an exercise for thedebate team at Arroyo High School in El Monte.
The phrases “debate team” and “English language learners” are not usually paired together. But they are one and the same in the American Dream Debate Team at Arroyo High School in El Monte, which is flourishing under the stewardship of English teacher Terry Colvin.
Arroyo High School has many first-generation Latino and Asian immigrants, and many have been encouraged to join the debate team by Colvin, sponsor of the after-school group that meets four times a week. Not all of the group’s students are English learners, but many are. Most team members are low-income, says Colvin.
“Historically, debate teams have been the province of hyper-verbal, highly articulate students trained to compete in this elite circuit,” says Colvin, who was a journalist for more than two decades before becoming a teacher. “But here, we have taken the opposite tack. We believe that a broadly welcoming culture, in concert with explicit teaching and high expectations, succeeds with our students more than elitism.”
It has succeeded with Christian Lin-Cobos, a senior at the school. “I am an immigrant from Ecuador, and at first it was hard to speak English and to put things into coherent sentences,” he says. “But the debate team has helped me a lot with my English and greatly improved my chances for college. It’s helped me to speak better and allowed me to meet people. We have a lot of fun on the field trips.”
As for the field trips: Last year, students competed in 23 weekend tournaments. The team has reached the state finals five times within six years, and last year, team members finished in 18th place in two categories — dramatic interpretation and humorous interpretation — out of 256 competitors. The team won a Golden Bell Award from the California School Boards Association in 2008 for its work with English learners, and last year’s team president won a scholarship to Yale University.
“The results speak for themselves,” says Colvin, a member of the El Monte Union Education Association. “We looked at test data for English learners who had gone through the program and compared them to similar students who had not gone through the program, and they scored about 20 to 30 percent higher than their peers on STAR testing. I’ve yet to see any student come through this program who didn’t graduate.”
Students say the skills they have learned will prepare them for college — and for life. They have learned to be articulate, to break down issues, to see both sides of a problem, and to conduct research to defend their arguments. During a recent class visit, teens talked about the pros and cons of dismantling nuclear weapons with ease.
“I was placed here by my counselor, and didn’t know what debate was until I got into the class,” recounts ninth-grader Sarah Lam. “At first I was shy, but now I’m talking a lot, which is good, because I’m planning on running for school president.”
The program is open to students in grades 9-12, and team members say they feel like a family.
“It’s cooperative learning,” says Colvin. “Students work as a team. They are developing critical thinking skills. And they are having fun at the same time. I’ve had kid after kid tell me that they are different from when they first came in. Many are unsure of themselves in the beginning, and leave with confidence and competence in the language. When you have a program that keeps teenagers after school so they can talk about social policy, politics, philosophy, morals and values, you’ve really got something wonderful.”
For more information and curriculum for starting a debate team, visit the California High School Speech Association at www.cahssa.org.