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Review: Say What You Mean: Beginning Debate by JoJo Tabares


So, your teens are full of worthwhile opinions and great ideas.  That’s a joy for any parent, especially a homeschooling parent.  Now the next question is: can they communicate their ideas winsomely?  Can they discuss them articulately and graciously with opponents?  Can they convince others of the truth of a matter? 

Based on the premise that “the more fun people have, the better they’ll understand, the more they’ll practice and the more effortlessly they’ll learn,” JoJo Tabares’ high school course, Say What You Mean: Beginning Debate is an enjoyable and dynamic way for homeschooled teens to learn this skill.  In 18 enjoyable lessons, this Christian course covers basic debating skills such as public speaking, countering arguments, brainstorming, organization, listening, and understanding an opponent’s viewpoint.

Each of these lessons has clear objectives, simple teaching tips, and relevant homework.  Each one includes a presentation to brainstorm and organize, a 3-5 minute speech to present, and, as the course goes on, rebuttals to prepare and present.  Students practise cross-examination, answer questions, study word choice, learn to organize their thoughts quickly, and learn to understand opposing points of view.

Beginning with simple skills and working up to more difficult ones, students spend much of each lesson on their feet, speaking.  Here is a course outline showing the skills they study:

  • Week 1: Introduction to Beginning Debate
    • Formal Debate Rules
    • Say What You Mean: Beginning Debate Rules
  • Week 2-6: Basic Speech and Debate Skills
    • Basic Debate and Speaking Skills
    • Increasing Interest
    • Considering the Opposition
    • Organization
    • Cross Examination
  • Week 7-12: Strategies for Proving Your Point
    • Assumptions and Switching Sides
    • Confidence
    • Attacking the affirmative
    • The Disadvantage
    • Rebuttals
    • Critique
  • Week 13-16: Getting Comfortable Switching Sides
    • Qualities of a Good Debater
    • Practice
    • Skills that Need Improvement
  • Week 17 & 18: Building Speed
    • Working on Speed
    • Working Faster
    • How Fast Can You Go?

Beginning Debate focuses on the actual speaking, understanding, and persuading aspects of debate rather than researching traditional debate topics.  Instead, the topics assigned in this course are simple and fun, such as hamburgers versus hotdogs, night owl versus morning person, winter versus summer, yo-yo’s versus Frisbees, and technology is bad versus good. 

This has three advantages in my opinion:

  1. the beginning debater gets a lot of practice actually debating,
  2. no student is overwhelmed with research and excessive homework, and, most importantly
  3. no beginning debater is faced with the emotional upheaval that could accompany defending a moral position they opposed. 

The assigned homework involves basic speaking skills such as volume control, avoiding ‘um,’ making eye contact, listening, evaluating political debates (and after learning the tricks of debate, you’ll see them being used), and other communication skills that will benefit the students in everyday life as well as public speaking and debating situations.

As an inexperienced public speaker myself, I need every tip and bit of advice that JoJo presents to be able to teach debate to my children.  Her advice is clear and makes it possible for me to teach this course even though I have never debated formally in my life. Her grading charts, helpful for preparing formal grades as well as for providing feedback on the different skills, make it possible for me to evaluate my children’s progress somewhat objectively and to help them improve.

JoJo’s experience with teenagers shines through in some of her comments.  I really chuckled at her warning, necessary for many teens, that “outside of a formal debate setting, debating can be viewed as arguing.”

Beginning Debate is designed more for a group situation than a homeschool and would be ideal for a co-op.  However, it is easily possible to make it work at home as long as at least two people are available.  (Hint:  Mom is an ‘available person’ too, and I, for one, really need to learn these skills.) 

Not realizing how meaty this course was, I thought it would easily fit into a corner of our schedules and that within a short while I could tell you what my teens had learned from it.  But, no, this is a serious course that presents valuable skills.  Although it’s fun, it takes time.   So I’ll need to wait until the spring before telling you how it worked, long term, in our homeschool.   From what I can see now, though, this is a very worthwhile course that promotes ability in debate, public speaking, brainstorming, organization, listening to others, and thinking clearly. Anyone who has worked through the lessons of Beginning Debate will be much more proficient at speaking in public, thinking on his or her feet, and, of course, debating.   

Beginning Debate is a Christian course but, as mentioned before, the debate topics are all light. A bonus second semester extension of Beginning Debate deals with serious issues. Art of Eloquence also sells another course, Say What You Mean: Debating the Issues, that focusses on discussing current issues informally, such as around the dinner table. 

Disclosure: I received a free download of Say What You Mean: Beginning Debate from JoJo Tabares of Art of Eloquence in order to give you my honest opinion.

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