Longtime north Tulsa resident Justin Daniels understands the challenges faced by Tulsa’s economically disenfranchised students and its students of color. In mid-December 2019, at the Tulsa Debate League’s (TDL) first annual North Tulsa Debate Classic (NTDC), TDL students in grades 5 through 12 challenged local community leaders at McLain High School.
In front of a diverse audience, Daniels said, “People write off these kids. Initially, they [other adults and educators] told me I was wasting my time teaching debate to young students in North Tulsa.” Daniels is the former dean of students of Langston Hughes Academy and the current Elementary Program Manager for the Tulsa Debate League.
Obum Ukabam, a TDL debate coach, headed the event. Mika Nicole, of NPR’s Focus: Black Oklahoma, and Nehemiah Frank, founder, director, and executive editor of the Black Wall Street Times, were the moderators.
The competition opened with a short film that featured scenes from the motion picture film The Great Debaters followed by TDL students. In the movie, TDL students mentioned how debating is fun and helps them with their reading and writing.
Daniels says TDL students already show improvements, “Their MAP (Measures of Academic Progress) scores — the MAP scores of the specific kids who participate in Tulsa Debate League — have jumped compared to their peers,” he explained.
According to the TDL website, “research shows that debate can dramatically close the achievement gap in urban school districts. Debaters are more likely to graduate from high school, meet college-readiness benchmarks and achieve greater cumulative grade point averages than their peers.”
The night began with a pizza party for students, followed by the tournament. Tanijah, a fifth-grader from Wayman Tisdale Fine Arts Academy, led the students through round one. She debated community activist and Teach for America alum Nate Morris. Morris represented the Met Cares Foundation on the topic ‘Should Students Wear Uniforms?’
Arguing in the negative, Tanijah spoke with a clear and emphatic voice, providing research, along with data and statistics, to back her arguments. At the end of the first round, the panel of judges – composed of community leaders and professionals, that included two former TDL debaters, a local playwright, a TDL board member, and an attorney – unanimously declared Tanijah as the winner.
The students who participated in later rounds did not sway the judges quite as much. Two young students from Walt Whitman, Ambernae and Xavier, faced off against two members of 100 Black Men. They were, however, unsuccessful at convincing the majority of judges. Their topic: ‘Students Should Be Paid to Do Chores.’ The youngsters gained crowd support, thanks in no small part to their enthusiasm, pertinent questions, and willingness to confront their opponents.
David Harris, of 100 Black Men, eventually rebutted that students should do chores for free “Because, I am a dad, and I said so!” The auditorium erupted in laughter with simultaneous applause coming from adults, mostly.
The Black Flower Society held their debate against Channon and Elijah from Walt Whitman. Their topic: ‘Should Kids Have a Designated BedTime.’ Elijah argued, “Kids should get to decide their bedtimes because their bodies will tell them when they are tired.”
The final round of the night transpired between McLain High School student, Yakov, who debated solo against Onikah and Kojo Asamoa-Caesar, on the topic of potential harm caused by video games. While the student argued passionately about how playing video games at home protects students from harm, focuses those with ADHD to sit still, and helps ease carpal tunnel syndrome, the Asamoa-Caesars were ultimately declared the winners by the judges.
After the debates, Will Roger High School debaters Cormell Padillow and Hannah Hoff congratulated their opponents Charity Marcus and Dr. Fallon Long — two members of Black Women Business Owners of America. The two teams debated the topic, ‘Homework Should be Banned in the USA.’
Padillow noted that while their opponents were well-prepared, and had strong perspectives, he felt that his team bested them with their argument that homework is a symptom of a more widespread systemic problem that promotes economic and social inequality for young people.
Padillow and Hoff’s solution was an overhaul of the entire educational system, which they stated, includes eliminating homework.
The evening was a great success for the TDL, which aims to fix the system of economic and social inequality that makes debate an out-of-reach goal for many North Tulsa students and seeks to promote and prepare students to thrive in the 21st century.
Per the TDL website, “debaters learn how to think critically and unpack arguments, dissect research, and evaluate choices. They learn how to communicate and how to explain complex concepts and articulate them to diverse audiences. Moreover, they discover how to engage in the world and understand multiple perspectives and make a positive impact on the world.”