Cross-examination and a game of catch: Here’s what happens at debate camp

By Wesley Yiin August 12 at 4:49 PM


A sample argument hangs on the wall at the Matthew H.Ornstein Washington Summer Debate Institute, a summer program teaching area students the skills of competitive policy debating. (Christian K. Lee/The Washington Post)

Like all good enrichment experiences, this one ends with a game.

After roughly 30 minutes of learning the basics of cross-examination — a crucial skill for competitive policy debate — the attention spans of the roughly 20 campers have faded.

Then a ball appears, and the students, who are in grades six to 12, perk up. Joe Karam, the assistant leading the workshop, explains the rules of the game they’re about to play, which is all about asking questions on the spot. The first person throws the ball to someone else in the room and asks them a question, any question. The person catching the ball is not to answer the question, but simply toss the ball to another person and ask them something else. If you answer a question or make a statement instead of asking a question, you’re out.

It doesn’t take long for the questions to take on an adolescent tenor. “Do you like tacos?” asks one student. Karam instructs the group to focus their questions on what they’ve been learning about: China and East Asia. “Are all Japanese people scared of Godzilla?” is one student’s revised query.

In the hallway, David Trigaux, the director of the Washington Urban Debate League and the affiliated Matthew H. Ornstein Washington Summer Debate Institute, acknowledges that this group, one of four “labs,” is the camp’s most energetic. So the lab leader and assistants have developed an informal system: In between sessions, the campers get short recesses, during which they sprint out of the room (and often the building) to burn off some excess juice.

After all, says Trigaux, what can you expect from a bunch of adolescents who’ve sacrificed one of the last weeks of their summer vacation to learn the fine art of debating?

Now in its second year, the week-long camp has nearly doubled in size, with roughly 70 participants split into three novice labs, including the restless ball-gamers, and one varsity lab for more experienced students. The free program gathers kids, most of whom have no experience at all with debating, from the area’s publicly funded schools (including magnet and charter schools) to train in both skill and substance. To assist with the latter, the camp had associates from the Asia Group lead sessions on U.S.-China relations, this year’s policy debate topic. On the program’s final day, the institute holds a “scrimmage,” in which campers debate one another in friendly fashion.


John Litchtefeld educates the students on U.S.-Asian relations. (Christian K. Lee/The Washington Post)

The camp is named in honor of Matthew Ornstein, son of political scientist Norman Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute and his wife, Judy, who fund the WUDL and the summer institute. Matthew was a champion debater at Georgetown Day School and went on to graduate from Princeton. Crippled by mental illness in adulthood, he died at 34 from carbon monoxide poisoning. Although his death was deemed accidental, his parents recognize that mental illness was a critical factor in his life and have advocated on behalf of mental health issues.

Matthew would have hated that, “because he did not believe he was ill. But this,” says Norman Ornstein, referring to the camp, “he would have loved.”

To his son, being on the debate team was akin to playing a varsity sport. Plus, it armed him with an enormous amount of substantive knowledge, which often made his conversations with his debate friends more intelligent and better informed than those of college or graduate students, Ornstein says. The many benefits of debating — public-speaking skills, confidence, teamwork, community and the spirit of friendly competition — are why the Ornsteins continue to fund the camp.

While Trigaux also recognizes those benefits, he likes to focus on the concrete, data-based effects of debating in his efforts to spread the gospel at urban, underprivileged schools. He cites research showing that student debaters typically have higher rates of graduation, literacy and school attendance than their peers. Parents find this so appealing, he says, that the camp received more than 130 applications this year. (Admission is mostly on a first-come, first-served basis.)


Mekhi Love, 13, stops his partner after being rushed with questions during a cross examination exercise. (Christian K. Lee/The Washington Post)


Lab leader Jonathan Gonzalez, center, listens as students present a debate speech. (Christian K. Lee/The Washington Post)

At 9 a.m., the varsity lab has a session on the “North Korea Dilemma in U.S.-China relations.” Terms like “deterrence strategy” and “existential concerns” are being thrown around, and the campers are frantically taking notes in their marbled notebooks. The campers probably understand about a third of what they’re being taught, says varsity lab leader Richard Day, but it’s important in debate to know how to counter your opponent without fully comprehending what they’re saying.

In a corner of the room, Keoni Scott-Reid, 17, listens intently, occasionally asking a question. In many ways, Scott-Reid exemplifies the summer institute’s mission — last year, he was given the camp’s inaugural Matthew H. Ornstein Outstanding Debater award, which, Trigaux and Norman Ornstein agree, has as much to do with character as with accomplishment.

Just a year ago, Scott-Reid says, his grade point average at Largo High School was 0.75.

“I wasn’t doing too well,” he says. “I didn’t have a way to legitimize my ideas.”

Over his objections, his mother sent him to last year’s summer institute. In that one short week, he discovered a new passion. Now, he says, his favorite topics of study and debate are structural oppression and communism.

And, to his mother’s credit, his GPA for the past year came in at 3.75.

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