Jonathan Alston once participated in the debate program at Science Park High School.
The experience was so formative that after earning a degree from Yale University, he came back to teach the skill to students who attend his alma mater. His program was recently featured on NJEA’s Classroom Close-up, NJ a television program that airs on NJTV. Throughout the video, a classroom of students can be seen debating the pros and cons of body cameras on police officers.
“Most kids want a voice. They want what they are saying to be heard, and debate provides a space where students can speak and no one else can speak,” Alston said, adding that learning debate skills gives students confidence and “ownership of intellect.”
The debate program at Science Park High School is 35 years old, and has been competitive statewide and nationally. Alston, who is also an English teacher at the school, himself won two state championships as a student, and his students touted his prowess as a debater and a teacher in turn. “Every little intricacy that is found within the activity of debare, Alston knows about,” observed 12th grader Amit, who is also a member of the 2015-2016 USA Debate Team.
In 2015, Alston was named National Debate Coach Association Teacher of the Year.
Given the success of the high school debate program, it has now become part of the required curriculum for all 7th grade students at the school. Alston said he does a little more hand holding with the younger students, but that the core skills he teaches are the same.
They’re “high level skills” that enhance their prowess at more advanced humanities study, Alston explained. His students concurred. “Being able to learn debate allows them to view the world in a whole new way, not just in terms of the ideas that they get to receive, but also in terms of how they interact with each other,” said David, a Science Park High School junior.
Sophomore Brianna agreed: “I think that we’re gonna have a developing class that is smarter and that is…more progressive than before because people are actually gonna be thinkers,” she said.
To wit, Alston noted that debate does double duty as an engaging practice that also teaches students the skills so often drilled into them in preparation for standardized tests. “Everything that we’ve been talking about in terms of education reform, debaters have been doing for years,” Alston said. An alternative to doing more test prep and hiring more tutors? “Hire more debate coaches,” he said.