By Faran Fagen
Tournament days at Westchester Elementary in Coral Springs are punctuated by the debate students dressed in professional attire.
When these students arrive at school, heads turn, and words of support and encouragement are given throughout the day.
“We’re proud of the standards our members hold themselves to and for the way they support and encourage one another throughout the year,” debate coach and fifth-grade teacher Jeanie Silcox said.
The team’s dapper duds were the precursor for an eloquent exhibition at their most recent tournament at J.P. Taravella High School. The Wildcats brought home 19 medals.
“The proudest accomplishments our team experiences are not in earning medals,” said Silcox, in her fifth year as head coach. “It’s celebrating the student who has worked so hard and finally earned their first medal. The entire team shares in the emotions felt by that student, with deafening cheers, pats on the back, and being so proud of someone for a job well done.”
The weeks leading up to the February Speech & Debate Tournament were filled with weekly team meetings and independent practice for team members. Students practiced in front of mirrors, FaceTimed one another to practice Duo Interpretation Speeches, and continued to spend lunchtime at school discussing their cases for Congressional Debate.
After every tournament, team members receive positive comments and constructive criticism from their judges. Hours of preparation are devoted to making changes and improvements based on judges’ comments on ballots from the December Tournament.
Once they arrived at J.P. Taravella’s auditorium, the team conducted last-minute practice, encouraged one another, and built each other up as they waited for the tournament to begin.
“These stolen moments are the final push after working hard for the previous two months,” Silcox said.
One afternoon a week is a favorite at Westchester. Three coaches gather 63 fourth and fifth-graders to learn how to use their voices in powerful ways. They are a part of Broward County Public Schools’ Debate Initiative, which strives to have a Speech & Debate Team in every elementary school in Broward County.
Westchester formed its first Speech & Debate Team five years ago. Silcox has coached all five years, and her assistants are Samantha Stone and Holly Erhardt.
Each year, Westchester Elementary School’s Speech & Debate Team competes in four tournaments and the District Championship.
Students are given bills to pass in chambers, then research and develop cases to compete in Congressional Debate. These young senators and representatives learn how to advocate for change and ask questions about opponents’ viewpoints.
Several speech events allow students to be dramatic and develop their own passionate presentation with a partner or solo by memorizing and presenting a 5-minute speech.
Currently, Westchester is working on speeches and cases for the April Tournament. After that, the Wildcats will compete in the Elementary District Speech & Debate Championship in May at Dillard High School. Many of these students will graduate from Westchester and join the Sawgrass Springs Middle or Coral Springs Charter Debate Teams.
Coaching fourth and fifth graders to use their voices to affect change has been one of the greatest highlights of Silcox’s career.
“Watching uncertain, shy students join the debate team and develop into young powerhouses who share their newfound passion in speaking up and speaking out is unparalleled,” Silcox said. “The support and adoration they receive from their families, teammates, school administrators, and coaches make being a part of Broward County Public Schools’ Debate Initiative time well spent.”
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- Faran Fagen, who teaches high school journalism, graduated from the University of Missouri-Columbia with a Journalism degree and from Florida Atlantic University with a degree in Education. He’s worked at The Palm Beach Post, SunSentinel, and MLB.com. He lives in Coral Springs with his wife and two children. Oh, and his three dogs — who all think that they’re his favorite.
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