Novice Debaters Make the Case for Inclusive Education


Patrick Henry High School debater Sydney Lohse embraces her cousin and partner, Alena Johnson. Photo by Armand Hayes.
Patrick Henry High School debater Sydney with her cousin and partner, Alena. Photo by Armand Hayes.

Could increasing funding for students with disabilities be the key to economic growth, reducing the school to prison pipeline, and ending ableism?

Only half of the United States meet requirements for the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). Meanwhile, Congress plans to cut funding for IDEA, and many states and local governments will not make up for the budgetary shortfall. Minnesota debate coaches are inciting dialogue about this topic by including it in the novice debate packet. The packet includes three cases advocating for the US federal government to increase funding or regulation for education. In one case, students will advocate implementing this policy:

The US Federal Government should fully fund its commitment to cover 40% of special education costs under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).

Rookie debater Sydney from Patrick Henry High School is passionate about this case because she has seen IDEA work successfully among her friends and classmates. “I was in fifth grade and I was just starting off the school year. This kid who actually turned out to be my friend – he was super nice and funny – was having a lot of trouble figuring out the math problems in class,” she says. “But the teacher was on the other side of the room. He gave up and threw his paper because no one would help him. After figuring out that he needs extra help in class with those kinds of things, they got someone to always be in the room with him whenever he needed help. The teacher got help too because he always got the help that he needed.” We’re always excited when debaters bring their personal experience to advocacy through debate!

Read more to learn about the arguments and evidence novices are using to advocate for increased special education funding!

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The Debate YA Fiction Reading List

In honor of Teen Read Week, we’re highlighting young adult fiction about debaters! Even though you debaters are undoubtedly busy reading research to build your cases at this time of year, it’s good to take a break and enjoy a different kind of reading, too.

The theme of this year’s Teen Read Week is “Unleash Your Story”. Do the stories told in these books resemble your story? If you’ve read the books, did you like them? Let us know on our Facebook page! 

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How Debaters Will Save Democracy (In Their Own Words)

Four young debaters stand in front of a world map holding certificates of accomplishment.
Debate prepares students to be more engaged citizens of their community, their nation, and their world.

Distrust of democracy, governmental institutions, and fellow citizens is high for young people, making the need for civic learning greater than ever.

Researchers at Tufts University released a white paper this week entitled The Republic is (Still) at Risk– and Civics is Part of the Solution: A Briefing Paper for the Democracy at a Crossroads National Summit. In it, they warn that civic trust and civic engagement is dwindling for young people. This decrease is even more severe in working class and low-income people, who tend to live in “civic deserts”, or places where people perceive few to no opportunities to meet, discuss issues, or address problems. Almost one-third of urban and suburban residents see themselves living in civic deserts, and low-income youth of all backgrounds feel disconnected from civic life.

Although this eroding support for democracy is daunting, researchers have identified six simple steps to rebuild civic trust. Authors Peter Levine and Kei Kawashima-Ginsberg argue that “Civic learning, when done properly, is the best vehicle to train young people to sustain our democracy.”

Debate can be a powerful tool to help fulfill the need for civic learning. Research of the Chicago Urban Debate League from 2007 shows that compared to students who had never debated, urban debaters demonstrate significantly higher social conscience and civic commitment. Here at MNUDL, we’ve observed the same change –and hear it directly from students.

Read more to learn about the six most promising practices identified to increase civic learning, and from Minnesota Urban Debate League students on how debate is helping them become more civically engaged!

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Novice Packet Jumpstarts New Debaters

A novice debater reads his case while his partner flows the debate.

Each spring, policy debaters receive the topic that sets up their entire season. Previous topics have prompted students to become experts on places oceans away. The 2017-2018 policy topic asks students to debate about the place where they spend most of their hours each day: school.

This year’s policy resolution is: “Resolved: The United States federal government should substantially increase its funding and/or regulation of elementary and/or secondary education in the United States.”

Changing education offers limitless opportunities for action. Varsity MNUDL students will interpret the resolution in unique ways to build their own cases for improving education. While endless possibilities can be inspiring, new debaters may not know where to begin. That’s why MNUDL provides a novice packet to introduce students to policy debate.

The novice packet includes all the resources novice students need to gain in-depth knowledge of three cases relevant to education. In each case, students will discuss why the government needs to make the change and explain several benefits to adopting their policy. To create the novice packet, a group of Minnesota coaches meets to discuss and vote on the top three cases to include in the packet, as well as the most compelling advantages. “We try to balance what we think will best uphold the resolution while also being interesting to students,” says MNUDL program director Jake Swede.

In one case, students will initiate a plan to fully fund and regulate a universal, public pre-kindergarten education program in the United States. In another, students will initiate a plan to increase funding and regulation for STEM programs, focusing on hiring women and people of color as teachers. In the final case, students will initiate a plan for the USFG to cover 40% of special education costs under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).

Students will argue that implementing these policies would have far-reaching consequences. Some topic areas discussed will be economic growth, poverty, the school to prison pipeline, sexism, racism, and ableism.

The novice packet also contains resources for arguments against the cases. Students will learn how to articulate negative unintended consequences that may come from adopting each of these specific policies. They will also learn arguments that can apply to many other debates on topics like local vs. national control and government spending. The research will help students think critically about hot-button issues like economic growth, educational standards, and diversity in schools.

Watch for later posts with more information about these affirmative cases!

Jamie Snoddy Ignites Enthusiasm as Community Coach

Jamie Snoddy with her co-coaches and the Patrick Henry High School debate team.
Jamie Snoddy with her co-coaches and the Patrick Henry High School debate team.

Yesterday, Patrick Henry High School was abuzz at the debate team pizza party kick-off. Community coach Jamie Snoddy led a debate game to get students standing and speaking their minds. By the end of the kick-off, a spirited debate emerged on topics ranging from cat vs. dog superiority to climate change.

Jamie sees her younger self in these students. She began her lifelong love affair with debate as a student competing for Patrick Henry High School.

“I remember walking through this exact same school and being just as excited. I just think, ‘I was you!’” 

Jamie was thrilled to tackle the community coaching role. “Debate did so much for me and helped open my eyes,” Jamie says. “To be able to give that back to my high school and the kids is something that really motivated me to become a community coach.”

This competitive season marks Jamie’s second year coaching at Patrick Henry High School. Her enjoyment for coaching hasn’t come from the big moments. Instead, she relishes every little moment when the debaters’ enthusiasm shines through. “You see that you are helping them realize this passion you also have,” Jamie states. “My favorite moments are realizing these kids really like this, and knowing you helped them to like it.”

Some of Jamie’s goals for this season include retaining more debaters, generating interest from more students, and spreading the word. “Now that we have three main returning students, we can have a solid team culture. That’s what got me into debate,” she adds.

Although Jamie coaches after school, she spends most of her day as a linguistics major at the University of Minnesota. Jamie connects her college career with her experience in MNUDL. “Being in debate and being a linguistics major is linked with my love of the technicalities of language,” she states. “Debate is very tactical in that sense. You have to word things very particularly. You can have entire debates about it!”

After high school debate season ends, Jamie plans to resume competing on the University of Minnesota policy debate team. Right now, her highest priority is getting the Patrick Henry High School students ready for the year ahead.

Putting the students first is an important part of Jamie’s coaching philosophy. After experiencing a year coaching, Jamie has some advice for new coaches: “Being a coach is less about the teaching of debate and more about the scaffolding for your debaters. A coach is somebody who is there for moral support. The kids are going to beat themselves up enough over losing debates. You need to be there to help them realize their strengths and capitalize on that.”

Jamie hopes her students will look back at their debate experience like she remembers her own: with a smile.

“That’s all I want to give to the kids – good memories with debate.”

Why Debate?

The image portrays two young female debaters preparing their case and includes text reading, "Why Debate? Our mission is to empower engaged learners, critical thinkers, and effective advocates. Encourage your student to join debate today!"

Earn Scholarships

MNUDL debaters can receive the Augsburg Promise Scholarship which covers the entire cost of tuition to Augsburg University. First-year students will receive the total cost of tuition if they meet the following criteria:

  • ACT of 20 or higher
  • Cumulative GPA of 3.25 or higher
  • Pell Grant eligible
  • Debate for 3 or more years for a MNUDL partner high school

Former MNUDL debaters have also qualified for full ride scholarships to universities all over the country including Emory University (Atlanta, GA) and Concordia College (Moorhead, MN). MNUDL debaters have also received substantial scholarships to universities including Columbia University (New York), University of Kentucky (Lexington, KY), and the University of Minnesota – Twin Cities.

Academic Achievement

MNUDL debaters surpass their peers in academic achievement. Debaters are 75% more likely to enjoy and engage in class. Debaters have a 12-14% increase in MCA scores. MNUDL prepares students for success after high school, with an average 6+ point ACT score increase and 99% of graduates being accepted into college.


MNUDL debaters may have the opportunity to travel the nation after qualifying for the Urban Debate National Championship. Varsity debaters may travel the upper Midwest (Iowa, Illinois, and North Dakota). Even when traveling locally, debaters meet other motivated students and are able preview university campuses and meet professors and students.

Make New Friends

MNUDL debaters gain a safe, supportive home for students as they integrate into a new high school. Debaters form lifelong friendships through teamwork and gain the confidence needed to make new friends. One MNUDL debater states it best:

“I found a family within my debate team.”

—Goachy Y., Patrick Henry High School ’13


If debate sounds right for you or someone you know, please contact MNUDL at for questions and more information!

MNUDL Summer Fellowship Provides Inside Look at the Law

Junior MNUDL student Amira Abukar poses in front of the Gray Plant Mooty law firm's insignia.
Junior student Amira Abukar earned tuition to debate camp, $1,000, and work experience with Gray Plant Mooty’s MNUDL Summer Fellowship.

Countless courtroom drama fans tune in to TV shows like Law and Order every day to watch fascinating cases unfold and look inside the life of an attorney. Most only get the opportunity to see it in front of a screen. One fan, Amira Abukar, junior student and debater at South High School, experienced the real deal as the 2017 Summer Fellowship intern at Minneapolis law firm Gray Plant Mooty.

Getting a glimpse into the real life of an attorney was different than Amira imagined: “When I went to a hearing I told an attorney, ‘this doesn’t look like Law and Order!’. She laughed and said, ‘A bunch of this is not like Law and Order. I figured that out the hard way!’”

During the fellowship, Amira visited multiple court hearings, assisted in research with attorneys, met judges, and more. She never knew what to expect next in her jam-packed fellowship at Gray Plant Mooty. “Every hour of every day is different. I never knew as in intern I would ever be so involved in an adult work environment,” she explains.

Gray Plant Mooty provided Amira’s summer camp registration, $1,000, and four weeks of experiential work. Amira became interested in the fellowship after her coach presented her with scholarship opportunities for MNUDL’s summer camp. “When I was looking through all the different scholarships, this one really stood out,” she states. “This one gave me a work opportunity, I got to explore the law field, and it would help me pay for debate camp. I could not pass up the opportunity to check three things off my list all in one scholarship.”

The law firm had a welcoming environment for Amira. “Everyone wants you to be involved. They want you to feel like you belong here and have a say in things. Everyone is communicating, working together and having fun,” she says.

The fellowship provides a unique opportunity to personally connect with attorneys. Attorneys told Amira personal stories about how they got into the field, their most compelling cases, and what skills to develop in high school and college for success as an attorney. “Attorneys don’t have that much time in their day and they work tirelessly ever single hour,” Amira says. “I thank the attorneys for taking time out of the day for me. They have a lot of clients and piles and piles of paperwork. Those 30 minutes or 2 hours they took to make sure I was involved really helped!”

Amira found that the research and organization skills she had already developed in debate created a successful internship experience. Those skills could continue to support her success in the future – Amira says that she might want to pursue the field of law after learning more about it during this firsthand experience.

Students interested in this diversity fellowship should check out our financial aid page to learn more about applying. Amira has some advice for the next interested student: “If you really love the law field and want to explore it, this would be the best opportunity. At Gray Plant Mooty, they make sure they answer all your questions. If you have any specific interest in the law field, they make sure to connect someone who does it with you.” She adds: “Whoever signs up is going to have a lot of fun!”

The Summer Fellowship is made possible by the Gray Plant Moody Foundation and chair of MNUDL’s advisory board Dean Eyler. Previous summer fellows have been featured on our blog: debaters Moti Benti-Novotny and Zarina Sementelli were featured here and Chris Oquist wrote about his experience here.

Debate Movies: The Watch List

As we say goodbye to the last carefree days of summer, we say hello to the next season. Not just autumn – debate season! Before all the hard work begins, sit back and relax with a big bowl of popcorn and check out these movies about debate.

A collage of images featuring stills from films depicting the following: Melvin B. Tolson from The Great Debaters, Solomon and Diwata from Speech & Debate, Amy from A Sort of Homecoming, Jordan from Love and Debate, and Hal Hefner from Rocket Science.

The watch list is organized by year and contains fun facts, the featured style of debate, and some food for thought to get your juices flowing for the upcoming season. Do you love them or hate them? What do they say about debate and debaters? Let us know what you think of these movies on our Facebook page!

Continue reading “Debate Movies: The Watch List”

Debaters Outperform MCA Reading Expectations

MNUDL Debater delivers his speech while using a stack of books as his lectern.MNUDL students outpace their peers on standardized tests by flexing mental muscles developed through policy debate.

Minnesota schools are striving to shrink the opportunity gap by half in 2017 and close it in 2020, yet recent MCA data reveals only 28% of students of color tested proficient in reading in 2017, compared with 74% of white students. How can the promise to low-income students and students of color for equitable education be fulfilled? MNUDL provides a compelling argument: debate.

As the opportunity gap widens in St. Paul and Minneapolis, data from a 3-year survey demonstrates MNUDL students exceed academic goals. The Minneapolis Public Schools’ Research, Evaluation, Assessment and Accountability Department analyzed Minnesota Comprehensive Assessment (MCA) scores for UDL students from 2014-2016. MNUDL students achieved 12-14% higher reading scores on the MCA per year, even after controlling for race/ethnicity, income, and past academic performance.

Skills drilled during each practice, round, and tournament prepare students for academic achievement. In the 2014-2015 MPS MNUDL Report’s focus group, students explained that debate helped them “gain vocabulary and reading speed” and to “skim, interpret, and think critically about their reading.” One student explained that since joining debate: “I read faster… and take notes about what I’m reading. I ask questions of myself.”

MNUDL students are in good company. Urban debaters nationwide celebrate academic growth. A 10-year assessment of 12,000 students published in The Journal for Adolescence in 2012 shows urban debaters are more likely to achieve ACT college readiness in English by 34% and in Reading by an impressive 74%. Even students with limited participation improved!

Standardized tests are just one tool to measure academic achievement – and debate’s effects are not only seen on bubble sheets. A 10-year study of Chicago Public Schools published by the National Association for Urban Debate Leagues reports UDL participation improves GPA, attendance, and high school graduation rates. MNUDL students’ minds also expand outside the box of their classroom. The Minneapolis Public Schools’ Research, Evaluation, Assessment and Accountability Department reported MNUDL students are able to “modify school assignments into work that they found more meaningful, interesting, and enjoyable.” As one student states: “I’m not thinking about me or the people around me. I’m thinking globally, politically, economically…”

Debaters read to understand complex issues in their preparation for after-school competition – but MNUDL students’ success shows those reading skills are preparation for challenges during school, too.

Introducing the Great Trade Debaters!


 The Minneapolis Team, Kayla and Eiset, are hard at work preparing with Jake & Travis in the Hard Times Cafe.
The Minneapolis Team, Kayla and Eiset, hard at work preparing with Jake & Travis in the Hard Times Cafe.

Four students, two teams, a VIP panel of judges (including Mayor Chris Coleman!), and all of them laser-focused on one issue: is China an ally on trade, or a competitor? To find out you’ll have to see the Great Trade Debate! These students have been training hard all spring to get prepared for this debate. You’re probably wondering who they are.

Arguing for the affirmative position, that we should cooperate with China and reap the benefits, is the team from Minneapolis! Kayla Cross from Edison High School has been debating for two years now, and she says that it’s taught her “perseverance: because sometimes debate is really hard.” Not only that, but she’s developed the valuable skill of “remembering to see people we debate against as opponents and not enemies.”

Debating alongside her is Eiset Mebrahtu, a student at South High School who also has a solid two years under his belt. He knows how important it is to discuss issues like trade with China, because “talking about the diplomatic stuff spills over into creating solutions to real world issues.” As for his preparations for the Mayor’s Challenge, he says “it’s going awesome! Travis & Jake are great helpers.”

The team from Saint Paul is arguing for the negative position, that the USA should regard China as a competitor. They’re represented in part by Anna Tran, a student at Highland Park High School who has been debating for two years (or four, if you count middle school.) As a debater she has learned “how to think on the spot, as well as how to be more confident.” Debating about the USA’s trade relations with China is important because of the nature of “our current administration and our relations with China.”

The most experienced debater to grace the stage at the Mayor’s Challenge will be Jack Lonstein, a student from St. Paul Central who has debated for four years. He has enjoyed “researching deeper into china’s labor market,” and exploring “the similarities and differences from earlier US labor markets.” For him, having this debate is important because of the present need “to address the past, present and future of our interactions” with China.

That’s all you’ll hear from them until Thursday, June 8th, when they’ll be up on stage at the Mayor’s Challenge. Right now they’re putting the finishing touches on their arguments and getting for the real test of their ideas, in the same place where they always test out new ideas: the debate round. See you there!