Let’s get a couple of things straight right up front about the elite squad NDP math teacher, Mrs. Aimee Sann, supervises at Notre Dame. First of all, it’s Speech AND Debate. Not just Debate. And secondly, it’s not just a club. It’s a team. That’s right. It’s the Speech and Debate TEAM. As in head-to-head, go several rounds, interscholastic, local, national, and… FIERCE competition. In fact, it can be argued that participation on the Speech and Debate Team (S&D) does as much for a young girl’s academic, emotional, and social well being as any team sport. It certainly has many of the same benefits as sports including building confidence, losing fear, understanding the importance of practice and personal sacrifice, dealing with winning and losing, developing champions, providing a real sense of belonging, overcoming shyness, and instilling and fortifying personal values. Just to name a few. And just like sports, there are some events in S&D where you have to be quick on your feet and think fast. Mrs. Sann referred to membership on the S&D team as a transformative experience for many NDP students.
“I’ve seen so many of the girls go from shy and uncertain to poised and confident young women,” Mrs. Sann explained. “And it’s not just internal. It radiates outward. You actually see visible transformations. It’s really quite remarkable what being on the team does for these girls.”
The team attracts a diversity of girls with a wide variety of interests including drama and performance, government and public policy, journalism and writing, and more. Some girls join simply to become better presenters and find that the S&D experience helps them in everything from classroom discussions to college interviews. Others look forward to careers where being proficient in the skills of speech and debate and the art of persuasion is crucial. Take, for instance, NDP alum, Jamie Watson (’13). Last year she won first place in the prestigious Harvard University Invitational Speech and Debate Tournament with an original speech entitled, “Laughter: FDA Approved.” This year, she is a freshman at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts, majoring in acting. In no small way, Jamie’s participation on the NDP S&D team helped pave the way. Others, like the team’s current president, senior Minnie Jang (’14), have different reasons for joining the team.
“My mother made me do it,” Minnie admits with a laugh. “However, I really started to like public speaking. I’ve been on the team since freshman year and every year I get a little bit better,” Minnie explained modestly. “It has helped me in the classroom and even around the lunch table. It’s made me a much better presenter and conversationalist. And it’s helped me convey ideas and emotions so much more clearly and compellingly.” In fact, Minnie has improved so much that she made it to the quarterfinals of the Yale Invitational this past fall. All this experience will no doubt hold her in good stead when she enters Harvard as a freshman this coming fall (Yup. She’s been accepted. More on that in a later blog).
Freshman and daughter of the team’s coach, Emily Sann (’17), has already noticed a change in herself.
“I joined because, well, I was really bad at speaking. And I was afraid. The team helped me lose my fear.” Indeed, Emily was so poised and articulate in our interview I had a hard time imagining her ever being afraid or stuttering as she spoke. I’ve decided to just take her word for it. Emily also explained the process of working on a speech in a way that made it sound very much like an artistic process; another dimension of the experience that gives it such wide appeal.
“When you first work on a speech, you’re trying just to get it out without sputtering or pausing. But you work on the same speech over a long period of time and each time you recite it, you work on something else. Soon, you’re working on aspects like expression, delivery, timing, tone, vocal variety and gestures. You finesse as you go along. It’s really a process of discovery.”
There are 12 events or categories from which the girls can choose, specialize, and compete. Mrs. Sann explained them all to me in detail and with great enthusiasm and I highly recommend that anyone interested contact her. Very briefly, however, the 12 events are:
In The Speech Category:
Declamation (memorize and recite an existing speech); Original Oratory (write and deliver your own speech); Interpretation of Literature including Dramatic Performance (acting); Duo Interpretation of Literature (team of 2); Oral Interpretation of Prose and Poetry; Extemporaneous Speaking (current events); Impromptu Speaking (get 2 minutes to come up with a 5 minute speech); Children’s Literature (good place for novices to start); and Congress (Congressional style speeches for or against legislation. Straddles the speech and debate line).
In the Debate Category:
Lincoln-Douglas (debate about values more than policy); Public Forum (team of 2 vs. team of 2); and Policy Debate.
Currently, Notre Dame participates in dozens of competitions both locally and nationally and belongs to several Forensics organizations (remember the origin of the word, from the Latin, “of or in the Forum.” Not to be confused with forensic science or CSI), including the Baltimore Catholic Forensics League and the National Forensics League (soon to be the National Speech and Debate Association). Competition takes the girls all over the state and country and over the years the team has had great success, the latest being just this week when NDP juniors, Nadia Creve-Coeur and Helene Baffoe-Bonnie won rounds in this year’s Harvard Invitational. Kudos to both and to coach, Mrs. Sann, considering that the snowstorm almost kept them from getting there at all. Mrs. Sann just laughed at the challenge.
“These girls love what they do. And I wasn’t going to let them down. They sacrifice a lot to get as far as they do. Think about it. This is a team that gets up early on Saturdays (when most kids their age are sleeping in), gets dressed up somewhat formally (on a day when most teenagers are decidedly casual), and goes to another school (on their day off) to compete in nerve wracking competitions. And they think it’s loads of fun! And you know what? It is!” She continued. “The students are so talented. They really affect you with their presentations. They make you laugh and cry. They make you think and re-think. And often, they change your mind. It’s a really powerful experience for everyone involved.”
Team leader, Minnie Jang agreed. Besides giving her confidence and sharpening her presentation skills, she said there was perhaps an even more important benefit to the whole experience.
“It’s such a great opportunity to get to listen to all the other presenters. I can’t tell you how much it’s opened my heart and mind to other ideas and other points of view. I feel really lucky to have this experience and be exposed to so many interesting people and ideas.”
Now that’s a concept worth talking about. The idea that the greatest added benefit to participation on a team whose whole purpose is to give these young women the courage and style to stand up and speak might be to give them the opportunity to sit down…and listen.