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Students learn the art of debate

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Photo by Tamie Meck Paonia Elementary School sixth-grade students Simon Cox, left, and Alejandro Garcia shake hands after debating whether Harry Potter is the best book series in children's literature. Teachers Eileen Stewart and Melissa Pizey teach debat

Children have so much to learn during their primary education: Grammar, spelling, arithmetic, history, geography, social skills and music and art. But there's one skill that kids and adults use almost daily, and yet many are ill-prepared for.

The debate.

"It happens almost every day," said Paonia Elementary School teacher Eileen Stewart. For several years she has taught debate to her sixth-grade students. She encourages students to learn early how to research and to back up arguments with solid evidence and present them in a civil way.

"I think civil arguing is a necessary skill that people need to learn and will benefit from throughout their lives," and one that is lacking in today's society, said Stewart.

For the last two weeks Stewart and fellow teacher Melissa Pizey have been holding their annual debates. Students choose from a list of about 20 topics, decide whether they are for or against the resolution, research and prepare written arguments. Debates are held to a strict timeline and are presented in front of a judge. They are also recorded for future educational use.

In the first debate, Simon Cox and Alejandro Garcia argued whether author J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter series is the best series in children's literature. While students debate in teams, Cox and Garcia chose to compete as individuals.

Cox argued in favor of the resolution. The series, he said, has sold 450 million books worldwide, outselling "To Kill a Mockingbird," "Lord of the Rings," and The Bible. The series is "charming, imaginative," and put the reader "into an entirely new world of wizards, magical games and strange new cultures." The series also led to some of the most popular movies of all time. "The series has fascinated generation after generation since J.K. Rowling published the first book in 1997," said Cox, and garnered some 35 awards.

Garcia opened on moral grounds, sharing a true story of an 8-year-old boy who stabbed a fellow student in the eye with a pencil which he believed to be a wand, while casting a spell, "because he thought he was a wizard." Some doubt, due to violent subjects and strong language, if the books are appropriate for kids. "Children should not be reading this language," he said. He argued that other books, including "Hatchet" and "Moon Over Manifest" are just as popular, "if not even more," and unlike Harry Potter, won the Newbury and other notable awards. He suggested Rowling needs a good editor and that the series is "one of the worst written."

They quoted from The New York Times and NPR, and presented numerous sides to the debate. David Bradford, a Paonia town trustee, author, and former high school debate team member, helps judge the debates. In this debate, said Bradford, the hard part was choosing a winner.

He commended Garcia and Cox for their civility in presenting their arguments, and admitted a personal bias -- he likes the Harry Potter series and wanted to side with Cox. While it may seem like an insignificant topic, "I guarantee that people are very passionate about this subject ... and believe both that it's the best and the worst series ever written."

Bradford urged them to provide more supportive and anecdotal evidence, and to be more theatric and assertive in their presentation. "Even though this is debate, there is a little bit of theater, a little bit of drama," said Bradford.

He urged them to speak slowly. "Walter Cronkite spoke at 130 words per minute," he said of the late news anchor. He suggested they note how many words the opening has, then figure out how long it will take to read.

After tallying up points, he awarded the debate to Garcia for his strong delivery and presentation. While he could have explained more about the awards and why they are significant and used more examples of better writing, his delivery and presentation were strong.

The final score: 27-26.

Read more from:
North Fork
Paonia Elementary, School
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