Democratizing Debate

Magazine of CA

Democratizing Debate

December 28, 2020

With the cancellations of long-planned anticipated travel, summer camps, and social gatherings looming large, a COVID-tainted summer was a far cry from what most had imagined in the early days of 2020. Rather than focus on what was lost, however, an enterprising group of Cary Academy Speech and Debate students instead saw an opportunity.

The students are proud volunteers with the Triangle Debate League (TDL). Thanks to their vision, leadership, and innovation, over 80 local youths that would not otherwise have access to speech and debate programming were able to participate in a world-class summer camp experience virtually.


Founded at Cary Academy and now in
its third year, TDL is a local collaborative nonprofit inspired by the work of the national organization, the Urban Debate League. Dedicated to broadening the debate community—long a domain of privilege—it aims to extend competitive speech and debate to public schools that do not have the staff or funds to support the activity.

“Speech and debate offers so many rich benefits: improved critical thinking, advocacy, public speaking skills, even heightened self-esteem and civic engagement,” offers Shawn Nix, Co-Director of CA’s Speech and Debate program. “Unfortunately, though, it is also an activity that requires a lot of resources—faculty, transportation, extensive travel,
and expensive entry fees. It is often cost-prohibitive to resource-strapped institutions.”

That’s where TDL comes in. A collaboration between student-coaches from the University of North Carolina and Duke University, as well as CA faculty, students, and alums, TDL works with local, partner public schools to deliver debate programming.

CA students involved with TDL volunteer as peer-mentors—sharing their knowledge, helping with research, serving as judges, offering critique, and facilitating group activities with TDL peer participants. Several CA alums have also pitched in, helping to run tournaments and serving as debate coaches. To date, they have helped to bring Congressional Debate to four public high schools in Durham, North Carolina.


TDL volunteer and captain of public forum debate for CA’s Speech and Debate team, Aryan Nair (’22), was the initial mastermind behind the idea of a virtual summer camp: “I had worked on Triangle Debate League’s summer camp the year prior and had been looking forward to doing it again,” Nair explains. “With COVID, I realized that an in-person camp wouldn’t be feasible, so I approached Mrs. Nix about doing a virtual one.”

With encouragement from his CA teachers, Nair got to work enlisting the help of other students to form an initial curriculum planning committee. Together, they began to meet biweekly to sketch out what a successful virtual camp might look like.

Ultimately, they settled on a week-long format, with each day designed around a specific aspect of speech and debate. The week would culminate in a tournament where campers could put it all together to show off their newly acquired rhetorical skills.

Plan in hand, they recruited additional CA peers to help bring the ambitious vision to fruition. Subcommittees were formed, and tasks delegated to address the camp’s multifaceted needs—from communications and customer service, to technology and web development, to coaching and instructional support.

Not unlike their CA teachers, camp leaders grappled with the challenge of transitioning an in-person experience to a successful virtual one—of creating an engaging experience that would retain the interest
of a Zoomed-in (and, at this point in the pandemic, Zoomed-out) digital audience.

“We wanted to give the camp a really good structure. We knew we didn’t want to just give lectures via Zoom,” explains Nair. “A
lot of people tend to zone out in the virtual environment; it isn’t always the most engaging.”

To make the most of both their audience’s attention spans and limited time together, they landed on offering a blend of synchronous and asynchronous content and experiences.

Campers received carefully planned asynchronous instruction through pre-recorded video segments that were devised, scripted, recorded, and edited by members of the curriculum committee. Topics ranged from sound research methodologies to

chamber etiquette, to the art of public speaking and persuasion, to speech writing and the ins and outs of crafting a compelling argument, to rebuttal and cross-fire techniques, and many others in-between.

“A lot of us had been to debate camp ourselves, or had volunteered at other debate camps, so we already had some resources that we had used or created before. We started pooling those resources, turning them into video presentations to make them more accessible,” explains Nair.

Complementing the video instruction, the coaching and instruction committee stepped in to devise and run in-person online synchronous drills via Zoom that allowed campers to put their new skills to work in small groups. It also offered campers important face time with coaches, who answered questions and gave tips on impromptu topics, like strategies to overcome stuttering or repetition.
A technology committee tackled arguably one of the most crucial components: establishing the virtual platform that would form the digital backbone of the camp.

Ritvik Nalamothu (’21), who led that effort, explains: “TDL had an existing website, but it was just a supplementary resource to our in-person operations. For camp, we had to convert it to be the primary resource; we had to develop a comprehensive virtual platform.”

And they did just that, designing and building an impressive one-stop virtual experience where campers could access all the resources they needed—welcome videos, daily and weekly schedules, links to assigned Zoom rooms, and a digital library of the video learning resources that had been created.

Nalamothu also worked closely with RJ Pellicciotta, CA’s Co-Director of Speech and Debate, and debate teacher Shannon Nix, to get camp tournaments up and running on the National Speech and Debate Association’s official Tabroom.com competitive platform. Doing so ensured that campers would have an authentic experience, one that reflected the look and feel of a typical tournament they might attend in their competitive future.


In all, the camp represented a highly concerted and collaborative team effort.
“There were a lot of students contributing across a wide variety of roles,” reflects Nalamothu. “We had students participating with me on the tech team, over a dozen others creating the curriculum. We had students that were counselors. Others worked communications or served as judges.

“It was remarkable to see the amount of student capital that went into it—and to see how their individual contributions came together in the successful final product.”

Impressed by the planning, infrastructure, and resources developed by the students, Nix lobbied them to expand the camp’s planned capacity and open the experience to CA’s Middle School students. The leaders agreed, and within 24 hours, registration jumped from 35 to 82 participants.

Far from flustered, the camp leaders took it in stride, pivoting to offer both morning and afternoon sessions, one for middle and another for high school students.

Speech and debate teachers Shawn and Shannon Nix were blown away by remarkable leadership and initiative exhibited by their CA students. “I’m continually amazed by them,” marvels Shawn. “Honestly, I don’t know how they did it all. They ran with it, and it went off without a hitch.”

By all accounts, the camp was an unequivocal success. Comments provided on campers’ feedback surveys (yep, the students planned for feedback to improve future experiences) were unanimously positive. “I haven’t had my brain working like this since lockdown—thanks for making me able to think again,” shared one camper.

Parents and campers alike exalted the camp as a positive and fun learning experience, expressing deep gratitude for camp leaders. Others were enthused over their new-found excitement to further explore speech and debate (enthusiasm that yielded real-world results, this fall, with the creation of the first-ever Middle School Debate Club).

For their part, camp leaders are proud of their efforts. And they are hopeful
that the virtual pivot necessitated by COVID will become a mainstay in the debate community—even after the pandemic is over.

“TDL has opened the pathway for expanding access to speech and debate resources. And in many ways, COVID is democratizing speech and debate,” reflect Nalamothu. “The shift to virtual venues, the removal of logistical obstacles like transportation, means that more people will have access, that TDL students will be able to participate in the same tournaments
CA students do.”


Nix is always quick to point out that the learning in Triangle Debate League goes both ways—that CA’s student volunteers benefit as much from the experience and their fellow TDL participants as the participants do from them. By all accounts, the camp was no different.

“Over the course of doing Congressional debate throughout high school, I have developed skills to synthesize information and present it persuasively in ways that allow me to advocate for things that I believe in,” offers Nalamothu. “It was immensely rewarding and gratifying to see the same progress that I have made, in others, with just a week at camp—to watch as our students went from having rudimentary skills to being able to deliver well-researched, persuasive speeches on a wide variety of topics.”

Running the TDL camp was as much a learning experience for us as our campers,” reflects Nair. Whether it was honing their own debate skills or teaching, or working on a website, or learning how to lead and organize a project of this magnitude—everyone took away important skills that they can use in their future.”

For Jane Sihm (’22), who helped with camp communications and moderated tournaments, the lessons were both practical and philosophical. “I learned so much: communication skills, collaboration, leadership. But my biggest takeaway was not to let barriers stop you from achieving your goals,” she muses.

“There were a lot of obstacles to pulling this off in a pandemic, but we didn’t let that stop us. We shifted our mindset; we broke it down into manageable pieces. And, before we knew it, we had helped dozens of kids. We had made a difference.”

Written by Mandy Dailey, Director of Communications

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Can I count on your vote?

December 28, 2020

How do you teach students to be media savvy citizens, ready to understand the complex dynamics of the modern political landscape? By making them run for office, of course.

Every year since Cary Academy first opened its doors, eighth-graders have participated in a mock election. “It seems like, if you’re trying to introduce American history and government, the logical starting point is to show how it all works, beginning with the electoral process,” explains eighth-grade history teacher David Snively.


To be clear, this isn’t your typical mock election, nor is it a costume contest. Students are challenged to take on a role that represents the various dimensions of our electoral process: candidate, campaign staff, or journalist. Most importantly: everyone is a voter. Everyone.

Candidates who seek office in the United Regions of Cary Academy (URCA) construct personas, build biographies, and decide key issues around which they build their platform and recruit campaign staff. Members of the campaign teams do everything from researching the issues and drafting campaign speeches and position papers, to fleshing out the platform and engaging the public, to devising advertising strategies and courting donors—more on that in a bit—all to give their man (or woman) the edge. Journalists investigate the candidates and the issues that matter to the voting public while producing news and opinion pieces for the primary media outlet of the URCA, The Cary Communicator, under the auspices of Editor- in-Chief (and eighth-grade language arts and history teacher) Meredith Stewart.

As in a real election, laws and regulations are enforced by an oversight body—in this case, the Board of Elections (aka Snively and Stewart). The “B of E,” as it’s affectionately known, doles out public financing, sets rates for media advertisements (curiously unaffected by inflation since 1997), manages voter registration, levies fines, approves materials distributed to voters, manages the candidate debates, and conducts the election day vote.


In a typical year, every citizen of the United Regions of Cary Academy is provided $50 (CAD—Cary Academy Dollars) to back the candidate(s) of their choosing. Those publicly-sourced funds are the lifeblood for the campaigns and their only way of buying airtime and ad space to get their message out to the electorate. Candidates and campaigns vie for the voting public’s votes and financial support through advertising, candidate forums, statements to the media, and public appearances that give candidates and their staff the opportunity to press the flesh (at a distance this year), answer questions, and persuade the undecided.

However (here it comes), in the URCA, as in real life, election 2020 was anything but normal—but that doesn’t mean it didn’t reflect the real world. With the school year starting with remote learning, the highly collaborative nature of the election project convinced Snively and Stewart to push back the assignment until after Cary Academy resumed in-person learning.

“Despite everything going on, because it is an election year, we could not not do this. But we couldn’t carry on as usual, either,” says Snively. “We had to rethink how we run the project, to adapt to having only some students in-person each day, and some students who are always virtual.”

So, in-person fundraisers and candidate meet-and-greets were out, and public financing of the campaigns was in. Each candidate received a set amount of funding upon which to draw, regardless of their number of supporters.

2020 also saw another change to how the United Regions of Cary Academy votes. (Heck, even the URCA itself changed, into the more recognizably-named “United States.”) Rather than one election, with everyone a member of the electorate, Gold cohort candidates court Blue cohort voters and vice-versa. This means personal (and political) allegiances were less likely to impact votes, and playing roles on both ends of the election provided the opportunity for students to engage the process from multiple perspectives, making them a little more media savvy in the process.

Because the Middle School is not host to the electoral trenches of a more typical campaign season, one other change
has come to the eighth grade’s election project. The eighth grade was asked to put together brief live Zoom presentations with visual aids to demonstrate their understanding of elections and help educate their sixth and seventh-grade peers, who won’t get to witness the
eighth-grade election in-action.


You’re probably wondering: how does this translate into students better understanding how real elections work and increased civic engagement when
they reach voting age? It all boils down to simulating reality.

“You’d be surprised to know that— despite this being a class project that takes place during the school day—just like in the real world, not everyone registers to vote,” laments Snively. “Each year, about a dozen students fail to register. Of those, three or four will show up to vote and get turned away.”

The United Regions of Cary Academy doesn’t use a convoluted system
to register voters—well, no more convoluted than the real world—it uses North Carolina’s voter registration forms (with “NC” carefully scratched out and “CA” carefully written in). Only, instead of submitting them to the county board of elections, the forms go to the good ol’ B of E. Just like in the real world, errors on the forms result in voters being omitted from the rolls. This critical lesson is much easier to swallow for students, than learning it the hard way on your first election day.

Much like the real world, URCA citizens are required to vote on their own time on election day—there’s no time off from class to vote, and if you don’t get to the polls before they close, you’ve missed your chance to have your voice heard.
According to Snively, this fact surprises some students; he notes that at least five or six students forget to vote each year.

Votes cast do not count towards the direct election of candidates. Like the United States of America, the United Regions of Cary Academy relies on an electoral college system. Students are assigned regions, and those regions are awarded electors based on populations.

In the past, some campaigns have used this to their advantage, recruiting staff from highly-populated regions to capture their all-important electoral college votes (for example, hiring three staffers from a region might almost guarantee winning that region’s electoral college votes). That strategy won’t work in 2020, with the divided, cohort-based electorates.

The project has even proven eerily similar to real life. One year, a spate of inconclusively marked ballots and a very, very tight margin of victory led to a particularly memorable election. The Supreme Court of Teachers was convened to rule on whether or not voters’ intent could be determined by the Board of Elections when ballots were subjectively marked. Sound familiar?

But not everything reflects the real world. In the URCA, there are no primaries (election season is simply too brief), and candidates’ statements, platforms, and advertising—as well as journalists’ reports—are held to the CA Statement of Community values. “No matter how outsized some of the
personalities they construct might be, we still have to live in the same community at the end of the day and the end of the election,” explains Snively.


To be clear, these aren’t trivial campaigns about what’s on the menu in the dining hall or which clubs should be offered next trimester. Instead, students tackle real-world issues, including tax rates, environmental policy, healthcare, and the minimum wage, to name a few.

Historically, members of the 8th- grade electorate form non-partisan political organizations around issues that are important to them. Analogous to Political Action Committees, these groups not only tend to sway the political conversation but extend the project’s impact beyond the conclusion of the URCA election season.

“Many times, students choose to focus their persuasive letter project—which happens during the second trimester—on issues they became passionate about during the election project. Often, these are subjects they knew nothing about before researching it for a campaign or a journalistic article,” says Stewart. These conversations extend outside of the classroom, too. Snively often observes students discussing healthcare policy during lunch, and many eighth-grade parents find themselves discussing real-world political issues with their students at the dinner table.

Throughout, students are encouraged (if not downright required) to engage in evidence-based politics, which has the effect of reframing the world around them—often in a context they’d never considered before. “They can’t just pull arguments out of thin air,” quips Snively. “If a candidate has a plan to fix healthcare or raise people out of poverty, they have to explain how they are going to pay for it. Each year, I have to explain that the government can’t hold a fundraiser; a bake sale isn’t a solution for deficit spending.”

Both Snively and Stewart note a fine line between guiding productive discourse and avoiding any influence on their students’ viewpoints. “Most politicians get into politics because they want to help out. It’s important for students to realize that there aren’t simple solutions. There are different ways to get to a goal, and we don’t always have to agree on the path we take,” says Snively. “There’s rarely anything in politics that’s a clear-cut ‘yes and no’ or ‘right and wrong’ issue—when it comes to public discourse, the answer is often somewhere in the middle. And what it comes down to is: how do you judge the merits of different approaches?”

“We want students to be responsible, engaged citizens,” says Stewart. “That’s why we spend time going over real campaign ads from years past and create a public forum to discuss the issues. We are building media literacy and giving them the toolkit to be analytical thinkers.”

“And they’re having fun, in the process,” adds Snively.

Participatory Democracy

Like their Middle School peers—Upper School students study the electoral process each year. However, unlike their younger counterparts, the government mechanisms and politics that they examine are ones in which they will soon participate.

This year, the Center for Community Engagement’s Maggie Grant worked with students to hold a voter registration drive. (In North Carolina, anyone 16 and older can register to vote, although you must be at least 18 to cast a ballot.)

In Maret Jones’s Advanced U.S. Government and Politics course, students learn about the structure and makeup of the government and U.S. political process through discussions of current events. Jones works hard to allow students to explore current political issues that are rarely, if ever, discussed in other classes while encouraging students to respect each other’s opinions. “It’s absolutely critical to create an atmosphere of trust in my class so that they can talk openly about their experiences and feel comfortable formulating their own ideas,” offers Jones. “Putting issues in contexts that feel relevant to their lives helps them grasp those topics and build a dialogue with each other.”

One key aspect of Jones’s class is helping students discern the difference between factual statements and political rhetoric. “I want them to be able to weed their way through stylistic choices and digest what’s really being said. I want them to be savvy consumers of political culture and always remember that words have meaning.”

To better understand how we measure the impact of those words, throughout the fall semester, Jones worked in parallel with Upper School math department chair Craig Lazarski to show students the ins and outs of polling. Students have learned about the statistical theories behind sampling and different ways to model the electorate (likely voters, registered voters, etc.) and consider how polls—and their results—are sometimes used for political effect, such as push polls and voter targeting.

This fall semester, the Community Engagement class, guided by Dr. Michael McElreath, is focused on “Democracy

in North Carolina.” Chosen by students, the topic requires a deep dive into voting and voting rights in the state. Students have examined the history of voting rights, turnout, voter disenfranchisement, gerrymandering, and the intersection of race, economics, and political engagement. Through the course, they’ve met with election attorneys, voting rights activists, and local election officials to examine these issues from a broad range of perspectives. As a result, the class has issued public calls to the Cary Academy community to ensure that everyone who can vote does, no matter their political affiliation.

Finally, recognizing that elections can be stressful and divisive, especially in a year filled with social and economic tensions, the Center for Community Engagement along with Meirav Solomon, CA’s Student Dialogue Leader, partnered with CoEXIST to create a series of structured community dialogues. These created spaces for students to share and support each other as they processed the stresses of the pandemic, racial justice movements, economic strains, and the partisan tensions surrounding the election.

In the wake of Election Day, the Upper School’s conservative and liberal student clubs, as well as a number faculty and staff affinity groups, created safe spaces for students to either take a respite from politics or share their thoughts in a supportive environment following the election results.

Written by Dan Smith, Digital Content Producer and Social Media Manager


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Dialoguing across difference

October 18, 2018

As a learning community committed to discovery, innovation, collaboration, and excellence, we believe in recognizing, respecting, and celebrating the unique array of experiences, perspectives, and contributions that each person brings to our community. It is imperative that students feel our school is a supportive space where their unique voices and perspectives will be received with respect, integrity, and compassion.

As such, it is crucial that we equip students with the requisite skills to constructively dialogue and learn with those whose opinions and beliefs might be different from their own.

To that end, last year we embarked on a schoolwide process to build individual empathy and collective capacity for conversations around challenging topics. For this important work we have collaborated with Essential Partners, a consulting firm that is known internationally for their expertise in using structured dialogue to bridge differences and build community. Last March, the Upper School worked with Essential Partners to use these protocols to discuss feelings of safety and security after the mass shooting tragedy in Parkland, Florida.

This moment—with the national conversation saturated with political discourse in advance of midterm elections—presents a timely opportunity to not only continue the meaningful dialogue work started last year but broaden it to include our entire community. Next Thursday, October 25, both the Middle School and Upper School will participate in their first facilitated dialogue of the year, focusing on personal values and beliefs.

To ensure that students feel comfortable, empowered, and supported in this work, these conversations will happen in trusted advisory groups and be co-facilitated by a faculty and staff member who have been trained in Essential Partners’ dialogic techniques. Faculty and staff will not be participating in the dialogue themselves but will provide and hold the framework for student discussion.

I want to underscore that these reflective dialogues are not about debate or persuasion, but about equipping students with the needed skills to create respectful dialog with people that may have different perspectives. They are personal, not partisan. They are an opportunity to talk about personal experiences and how they have shaped held values. They are an opportunity to listen to others’ experiences with resilience and curiosity, particularly if it involves hearing something that differs from a personally-held point of view.

An Invitation for Parents

Thursday’s activities will begin with an assembly for the Middle and Upper Schools where John Sarrouf of Essential Partners will connect our conversations with his wider work in communities and schools around the world. Then at 1:45 pm, while students are in their meetings, Essential Partners will also host a dialogue in the Discovery Studio for parents interested in experiencing the process first-hand. That session will end at 3 pm. Finally, at 6 pm in U201 (second floor, Upper School building) Essential Partners will host an information session open to all parents, where you will have an opportunity to ask questions about the day’s activities.

There is room in this process for everyone, and we would love to have you involved. Over the next week, we encourage families to consider some “dinner table” conversation starters that might help spark student reflection and sharing on the 25th. You might consider talking about any one of the following:

  • What school core value—respect, integrity, compassion—resonates most with you, and why?
  • Share a story from your past that you think of as one of the first moments you remember caring about an issue or a political idea.
  • Who in the world (other than your parents) do you most admire and why?
  • What local issue in the community is most concerning to you?
  • If you had more time to volunteer, what would you do? Why is that important to you?

Thank you for supporting your students as we undertake this critical work, which is directly linked to our strategic vision to cultivate self-directed and bold life-long learners who make meaningful contributions to the world. I hope to see some of you next Thursday, October 25, at the parent dialogue at 1:45 pm or in the 6 pm evening information session.


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