Post Magazine: Arguing for the Future

Karen Houppert and Pam Spiliadis
Writer and Executive Director, Baltimore Urban Debate League
Monday, August 27, 2007; 12:00 PM

The tendency Jermol Jupiter and Iggy Evans have to mouth off could have gotten them into deep trouble. But a debate program for disadvantaged teens made them stars at Baltimore's Frederick Douglass High School instead.

Karen Houppert, whose article about Urban Debate Leagues appeared in yesterday's Washington Post Magazine, and Pam Spiliadis, executive director of the Baltimore Urban Debate League, were online today at noon to field questions and comments.

A transcript follows.

Karen Houppert, who lives in Baltimore, is the author of "Home Fires Burning: Married to the Military - for Better or Worse."


Pam Spiliadis: Hello,

This is Pam Spiliadis, Executive Director of the Baltimore Urban Debate League. Thank you for joining us.


Karen Houppert: Hi,

This is Karen Houppert, the reporter who followed the Urban Debate League in Baltimore for the past few months. Thanks for coming.


Lyme, Conn.: I recall high school debate teams from decades ago? Are these rules about the same or is this a different kind of debate? I wish the students luck and want them to know that the ability to engage in public speaking and think on their feet will help them in their professional careers and in life.

Pam Spiliadis: It is probably a very similar kind of debate to what you experienced. We call it policy debate, it is also referred to as cross examination debate. Very research intensive, probably practiced at higher speeds than you recall.


Washington, D.C.: Such a great article! I run a Global Debate program linking students across the U.S. and 20 countries to talk about current global issues ( The People Speak for more info). This article so brilliantly captures what we are seeing in this program -- debate skills are essential in a functioning democracy and learning these skills will help transform people to citizens!

Karen Houppert: Glad you liked the article. It was eye-opening for me to see how debate really helped these students learn to articulate their ideas and really empowered them to feel like they had a right to participate in a democracy.


New York, N.Y. : I see you wrote a book on military families. Are you from a military family? What is your book about?

Karen Houppert: Yes, I'm an Air Force brat. And my book is about military wives whose husbands have been deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan. I spent a year, checking in with them to see how the war and their husbands' absence effected their lives--and their kids' lives.


Washington, D.C.: Is the mayor, who now has control of the D.C. Public School system, interested in this program in a pro-active manner vs. tentative rhetoric? I see the chancellor has said something but promised nothing. Expanding this program is a win-win for the District.

Pam Spiliadis: The D.C. League feels that they are making good progress with the school system. We are hopeful that the support will come through.


Washington, D.C.: Why did you portray the opponents from Milwaukee as rich kids? Since it was UDL novice nationals, one would presume they are also in an uban debate league.

(This is my only quibble with your article. As a former debater -- from one of those rich white schools -- who now judges for the DCUDL and WACFL, I felt you made a very good case for getting more high schoolers of all backgrounds involved in debate.)

Karen Houppert: You're right. The Milwaukee kids were also Urban Debaters--they simply opted for the more conventional form of debate and were, I think, a bit taken by surprise by Iggy and Jermol's argument which came at them from out of left field.


Washington, D.C.: Why do you refer to the DCUDL ( as "in its infancy" when this successful league is now entering its sixth year of operation? Moreover, the D.C. league has had many successes on the national circuit and has always at least held its own in competitions with Baltimore debaters. I understand you are a Baltimore-based writer, but it's curious that a Washington paper would be so dismissive of an important program here in D.C.

Karen Houppert: Well, it wasn't my intent to be dismissive of the District's debate teams. I attended several of their tournaments, watched several practice sessions and interviewed many D.C. debaters. The program seems terrific.

I think when I spoke of it being in its "infancy" I meant that the director had great hopes for expanding it from the 300 participants it currently has to a large program that was going strong in all the city's public schools.


Bethesda, Md.: It sounds like the league's debate style is great for teaching the kids research skills, but what kind of rhetorical skills do they learn from becoming speed-talkers and using a lot of debate jargon in their rounds? It sounds as though a typical debate round would be impenetrable to an outsider. Is this a concern? Are there any plans to try other speech events or debate styles that might emphasize rhetorical clarity more?

Pam Spiliadis: Hi, thanks for your question. Not all of the debaters debate with speed. Some make a conscious choice to emphasize eloquence and clarity. Because debate is ever evolving and is open itself to critique, many debaters in high school and college are questioning speed in their rounds and debating at a rate that a lay person could appreciate. Other students are excited by the challenge and thrill of the game with the speed element and stick with the game and all its associated academic benefits partly because of that challenge.


Fairfax, Va.: It's great that these kids from underperforming schools are winning full-fare scholarships to college, but do you think their high school education across the board is good enough to prepare them? Will they get help if they need it to handle college-level work?

Karen Houppert: That's a great question. As was clear, I think from the piece, the quality of education here in Baltimore is pretty poor at the moment. (Though we do have a brand new CEO of schools--our equivalent of your chancellor--and I recently interviewed him for an article and am feeling much more optimistic about the future of the city's schools.)

But it's true that going from an underperforming school to a rigorous university will pose some real challenges. In Iggy's case, he is very aware of that and expressed concern about how he would fare at Towson. Fortunately, in Iggy's case, he is a student that is smart and assertive enough to seek out--and find--help if he needs it. He has learned to speak up about what matters to him and I'm guessing that he'll figure out how to get what he needs from Towson.


Alexandria, Va.: Having come to the Washington area from Kansas City, I would be interested in knowing more about the University of Missouri-Kansas City 2004 study that showed a year's participation in debate improves literacy by 25 percent and makes students three times less likely to engage in high-risk behaviors such as fighting and skipping school. What schools were included in the study?

Pam Spiliadis: I do not have a list of the Kansas schools but if you would like to contact me in person I would be happy to out you in touch with the author of the study.


Washington, D.C.: Why do urban debate leagues offer only policy debate? Of all the styles of competitive high school debate, I find it to be by far the most difficult for an "outsider" to get into and understand.

Pam Spiliadis: There is no one model of urban debate. Some leagues compete in other events as well. In Baltimore we chose to initiate the League with policy debate because of how rigorous it is academically, particularly in terms of the research intensive component. We also spend a lot of our time in Baltimore debating in a completely different style in Baltimore in our community/public debates which are designed to persuade and involve a live audience.


Washington, D.C.: Thank you for this story. Almost everything we read or hear about the Baltimore Public Schools is negative. It's so nice to hear something positive that's being done for these kids. I hope Iggy and Jermol achieve great success in college and beyond!

Karen Houppert: It's true that much of what we read about the Baltimore public schools is negative--particularly, about the high schools here. It will be interesting to see how events unfold here in Baltimore with our new schools chief who, among other things, has said he will forego the usual (easier) route of focusing on improving elementary education. He says he intends spend a lot energy and manpower on fixing the city's high schools, instead of simply assuming it's too late to do much to help the teens.

Whether or not he'll manage that--given Baltimore's poor record here--remains to be seen. But certainly everybody here in the city is watching very closely; they want to believe he can turn the schools around.


Washington, D.C.: I submitted my question earlier. Just want to say thanks for writing this article; I work in early education policy, specifically as it relates to disadvantaged kids, and I think the subject of extra-curricular activities at underpriviliged high schools is an important one, so thanks for covering this issue.

Karen Houppert: Yes, from some of the experts I spoke to while working on this article I learned that extra-curricular activities often function as a hook to keep students attached and engaged in school. Sadly, such programs, along with say, art and drama and music, are often considered expendable when it comes to trimming school budgets.


Judiciary Square, Washington, D.C. : I just wanted to say that this was a great article! As a former Georgia High School debator who attended the Emory Institute, and former volunteer with the DCUDL -- I can attest to the invaluable lessons policy debate teaches. And trust me -- it isn't just about reading fast. If you don't know what to read or what you are reading, you're just talking fast!

Karen Houppert: Yes, it was pretty clear to me that these students knew very well what they were reading. After all, they compiled and/or wrote the material. And they were grilled on nearly every aspect of their opening statements as the debate went along. They clearly had a handle on the material.


Pam Spiliadis: Thanks for your interest and support. Please contact me directly at the Baltimore Urban Debate League, or check out the Associated Leaders of Urban Debate Web site at to learn more about the urban debate movement and to find contact info for the D.C. and other urban debate programs.



Karen Houppert: Thanks for weighing in on the article. It's nice to hear what readers think--especially when the article is all about weighing in on the issues of the day.

_______________________ Baltimore Urban Debate League

_______________________ Associated Leaders of Urban Debate


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