Jamaica, 1989

“Can you tell me what this is?” She pointed to the odd looking lump in the buffet line. The man behind the counter glanced over, and muttered something in indistinct, accented English. “Mayighf pret.”

She frowned. “I’m sorry, what was that?”

“Naydef bret,” he repeated.

“What?” She leaned in. “I’m sorry, what did you say?”

With a flat glare, the man shoved his face towards hers, raised his voice, and hit each syllable with agonizing precision. “NATIVE. BREAD.”

“Oh.” She blinked. “Sorry. Thanks.” She picked up a piece and dropped in on her plate. “Sheesh,” she muttered as she moved away, “what a nice guy.”

Chicago, 2017

The ceiling fan made lazy circles in the quiet room. Six pairs of eyes stared back at me in mute incomprehension. I paused, and suddenly wondered just how fast I’d been speaking. “Does that make sense?” I asked apprehensively. An unconvincing nod came from one student, a confused look from another, and timid shrugs from the rest. Mentally, I gnashed my teeth in frustration. Outwardly, I smiled perkily and said, “Okay, so let me put it this way…”

It’s times like this that make me think of the Native Bread Man. It’s easy to blame communication failure on the listener, but that’s not how it works. I’m a teacher. If my students don’t get something, it’s not their fault. My job is to present ideas in a way that makes sense to this particular audience.

This fall, I’ve been reminded of that fact a lot. Because this fall, I got seven part time jobs.

Yep. Seven. You can check back at the end of the school year to see if I’m still sane.

Out of the blue, there were opportunities to teach flying at me—some private coaching, some in the classroom. Because they were all vastly different, I had to be able to adapt my teaching style for each one. One day, I’d be working with advanced debaters who’ve been competing at Nationals since they were six. The next, I’d have a class full of novices who’d never seen a debate round in their lives. If forced to choose between speaking in front of a crowd, and crossing the Atlantic in a kayak in February, they probably would have chosen the kayak.

Surprisingly, teaching novices has been the biggest adjustment for me. With experienced debaters, we all speak the same language. I can use debate lingo shortcuts, and they immediately know what I’m talking about. But novices don’t have that. They think differently—actually, they think more like normal people, instead of hyperactive debate nerds like me. I’ve had to adapt and try new things. Somewhere along the way, I’ve become a more effective teacher because of it.

So here’s what I’ve been trying for the past three months. If you’re a coach or student leader, you can experiment with these tips and see what works for you. If you’re a debater, you can incorporate these ideas into your rounds with community judges or nervous parents. If you’re a novice, you might be able to use these concepts to assess your own behavior and approach to debate.

  1. Don’t take yes for an answer. There’s one phrase that pervades my vocabulary more and more these days: ‘Does that make sense?’ I sprinkle this question liberally throughout my classes to make sure that I haven’t lost anyone. Because no matter how clearly you think you’re communicating, chances are you’ve blown past them all without even realizing it. So I’ve started saying things like, “And we can’t pass a plan that has no funding, right? RIGHT?” Typically, I make eye contact with each student and wait for a nod of confirmation, but sometimes that isn’t enough. Highschoolers are an insecure lot (aren’t we all?) and really don’t like admitting that they have no idea what you’re talking about. So I’ve added a second phrase. This one I usually couple with a steely glare: “DON’T LIE TO ME!” Or a more rational, “Please, if it doesn’t make sense, just let me know.”
    Coach Takeaway: If there’s any uncertainty, stop and retrace the ground you just covered. Rephrase it, put it into different context, make it more concrete; whatever works. Trust me, you’ll know when it clicks for real.
    Student Takeaway: If something doesn’t make sense, speak up. It’s the coach’s responsibility to communicate with you. Don’t feel like you have to understand everything the first time through. Ask questions.
  2. Make them explain it. This is a subset of the first tip. Sometimes, the only way to really know how well your students are tracking is to have them explain it back to you. Chances are, if they can’t articulate an idea, they don’t have a solid grasp of it.
    Coach Takeaway: Don’t make them parrot everything back to you, but if there’s a concept that you want them to really latch on to, don’t be afraid to put them on the spot. Or, if they’re not prepared to do it right away, give it to them as an assignment. Usually, every student in my class goes home with ‘fun-size homework’—typically a concept from the resolution that didn’t seem to sink in, or that they’ve had questions about. I make them do some research on it, then come back and explain it to the rest of the group to prove they have ownership of it.
    Student Takeaway: You can initiate this process. Ask a clarifying question, then repeat back to the coach what you think you’re hearing. Everyone hears things differently, since everyone has a different perspective and background through which they filter incoming information.
  3. Make them use their own words. Beginners love having evidence to read (at least in TP). It’s comfortingly safe—they don’t have to come up with content. There isn’t anything wrong with this, but sometimes it can become a bit of a crutch. They need to be able to explain the evidence in their own words and connect it to the rest of the round.
    Coach Takeaway: Short, one minute drills are a great way to get past this. Hand them a piece of evidence and set a timer. They can read the card, but then they have to talk about it for sixty seconds.
    Student Takeaway: Don’t ever just read a piece of evidence and then move on. You have to reword it, discuss it, interpret it. That’s the only way it will have any meaning—and the only way you’ll ever develop your debate skills.
  4. Don’t take no for an answer. I had one student tell me, ‘I don’t want to do another practice round; I’d rather watch. I learn best by observation.’ Sorry, buddy. Not how this works. Debate is learned best by doing. It’s never easy, but that’s why I’m here: to make you do the hard things you don’t want to do.
    Coach Takeaway: Novices (with a few exceptions) tend to hang back, never volunteer for anything, and avoid practice drills like the plague. My solution? Don’t ask for volunteers. I tell my kids that my job is to make their lives difficult. 😉
    Student Takeaway: If you truly want to excel, you should be volunteering every chance you get. I know you don’t want to do it; it’s painful, it’s embarrassing, you feel ridiculous, etc. But it will make you grow. If you come to this with a willingness to risk, you will grow by leaps and bounds. Raising your hand is the first step.
  5. Take it slow. After being in debate for eons, it’s easy to fly through content. You know it inside and out; to you it’s common sense. But to a first time debater, it’s not natural. Everything that you’re talking about is, for them, like visiting a foreign country: they don’t understand the language, the people, or the culture.
    Coach Takeaway: Take it slower than you think you need to. Rather than starting out fast and then putting on the brakes, it’s better to move slowly and then speed things up as you assess the students’ pace.
    Student Takeaway: There’s only so much a coach can cover in class. Most of what they tell you will make a lot more sense if you do some extra work on your own. If there was something you wanted to spend more time on, go for it. Look up articles that will help you understand the concept, talk about it with your friends and family, incorporate it into your practice drills.
  6. Use your advanced students. If you don’t have the luxury of running two tracks of debate—one for novices and one for advanced—then you’ll need to find a way to keep both groups engaged.
    Coach Takeaway: Sometimes I assign topic lectures to my advanced students and have them teach a skill to the whole group. Sometimes I just hand them an article or written summary of a skill they haven’t learned yet, and give them ten minutes to read through it. While they’re off doing that, you can focus on the novices, covering a more foundational idea. Then the advanced students come back and present a summary of what they’ve learned. For practice rounds, we pair an experienced debater with a first year student. I love this approach for a couple of reasons. First, it forces the experienced debater to distill ideas into their simplest forms—something they’ll have to do in a debate round with an inexperienced judge. Second, it challenges them with a higher level of prep and responsibility. They have to take the lead on deciding strategy and content. Third, it allows the novice to relax a little, knowing they have someone else’s experience and knowledge to fall back on. And finally, the experienced debater supplies the necessary content and support that will enable a novice to take the hardest step: getting up and speaking. You can run standard practice rounds like this, or throw in a few variations. You could do a stop-and-go format, or allow tag-teaming. Tag-teaming allows debaters to pause their partner’s speech and say things like, ‘Hey, don’t forget to read this piece of evidence—it fits perfectly with the point you just made,’ or, ‘Wait, don’t move on just yet. You’ll want to expand on that point some more to really make it clear to the judge,’ etc.
    Student Takeaway: Make friends with experienced debaters. I know, it’s a little intimidating, since they seem to function on an entirely different plane of reality than the rest of us humans, but just chill for a second. They have a huge body of resources that you will benefit from—experience, research, argumentation; the list goes on. My survival in debate is largely due to another team in our club that watched out for my partner and I. The four of us were friends, and we would talk about debate every chance we got. Discussing ideas with them sharpened my own critical thinking. They also were obsessive researchers, and anytime we mentioned who we were hitting next round, one of them was sure to say, ‘Oh, we have a brief on their case. You want it?’ (I thought that was kind of a dumb question. Heck yeah, we wanted it. Like I said, they operated on a different plane of reality.) Just knowing that those guys were out there rooting for us made a world of difference. You will never regret building positive relationships with other debaters.

I love teaching debate. Regardless of experience level, every time I interact with my students, I become a better communicator. They’re challenging me to think differently, speak differently, and act differently. You might not have a class full of debaters who have to sit and listen to you, but you do have a unique audience of your own—peers, judges, parents, friends. Don’t blame confusion on the listener. Instead, try a different approach and adapt your presentation style.

But whatever you do, avoid Native Bread at all costs.

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