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!

Keep Fighting to Stop the Cut!

MNUDL students

Thank you to all the debaters, parents, coaches, and supporters that have already reached out to school board members!

We still really, really need as many people as possible to attend the Minneapolis School Board meeting next Tuesday, February 14 at 5:00pm!

One of the big issues is integration funding.  You may hear that some debate teams cannot be legally funded with State integration dollars, but that is not true. So, we’ve created a short summary about Integration & Achievement funding:

What is Integration & Achievement Funding, and Why Should I Care?

  • In Minneapolis, the most of the Urban Debate League’s funding comes from State Integration and Achievement funds.
  • By law, Integration funding must be used for:
    • Racial and economic integration among students AND
    • Increasing student academic achievement, AND
    • Providing equitable educational experiences, AND
    • Reducing the academic achievement gap between students of different races, ethnicities and economic backgrounds.
  • The law specifies that districts must pursue these goals by creating integrated learning environments, access to diverse teachers, professional development, and college and career readiness programs.

Can Integration & Achievement Dollars Be Used At Schools Which Are Not Racially Isolated?

  • Yes, integration funds can be used at any school to support programs that advance the purposes of achievement and Integration. While districts should direct some of the resources to racially isolated schools (RIS), they can also fund programs at any school.

How Does Urban Debate Help Meet The Integration & Achievement Goals?

Urban debate creates highly integrated learning environments. Unlike most other academic or sports programs, debate teams compete against kids from outside their school, their district, and sometimes even their State. Instead of one school competing against another (like basketball or football), debate tournaments bring together dozens of schools with hundreds of students from many racial, ethnic and economic backgrounds, and from inner city, suburban and rural schools.

Beyond tournaments, debaters attend summer camps; inter-school practices, scrimmages, and trainings that bring kids from all backgrounds together.  This is integration at its best: where kids from many backgrounds learn from each other and move beyond the normal barriers of class and color to create lasting friendships.

Urban debate is proven to help close the achievement gap.  3 years of rigorous, independent, controlled studies conducted by Minneapolis Public School’s own office of assessment, concluded that one year in Urban Debate improved MCA reading test scores by 12-14%, and raised student GPA’s significantly.  If the goal is to close the achievement gap, raise test scores and improve GPA’s then Urban Debate meets and exceeds those goals!

Urban debate provides excellent “equitable educational opportunities.” The Minnesota Department of Education FAQ section on Integration funding says, “An equitable education means teaching all students the value of multiple perspectives, critical thinking skills, and the ability to build relationships with others who don’t look like them, believe the same things they do, or live in their neighborhoods or communities.”

There could hardly be a better description of Urban Debate!  Debate clearly exceeds these goals, and helps the Minneapolis Public Schools pursue its Integration and Achievement goals.

What can you do?

  • To persuade the Board bring a large group of debaters and parents from your team to the meeting on Tuesday, Feb. 14 at 5:00pm!  Pick 1-3 members of your team to speak while the rest of the team stands with them.  This sends a powerful message about the impact that cutting debate from your school would have for you, your friends and family.  Sign up here:, and here:
  • Email or call your school board members and encourage others to contact their school board members.

Six Reasons Why Debaters Are Superheroes

Debaters are equipped with these powers to fight systemic oppression and advocate for change in their communities. Their mission: to #ElevateDebate and raise the standard of discourse across the country.


  2. You have to know what’s true and what’s false to win a debate round – you can’t let your opponent pull the wool over your eyes. That’s why debaters have X-RAY VISION to see through false facts and get to the truth.

  4. In debate, students are always switching between arguing for or against an issue. This means that when a debater has a conflict with someone, they always use their EMPATHIC COGNITION to see the issue from the other side. There’s no name calling in debate – it’s about facing the facts and finding the best solution to the problems they face.

  6. It’s not easy being a debater. Most students lose as many rounds as they win – but this just makes them tougher. A debater might lose one round, but with REGENERATION they always get back on their feet ready to take on the challenge again.

  8. Success in a debate round requires students to be quick on the draw. They do everything fast: speaking fast to fill their limited time with arguments, writing fast to keep track of everything their opponent says, and reading fast to come up with evidence for counterarguments on the fly.

  10. A debate round can last for as long as an hour and a half and back-and-forth action, and a tournament will have many rounds back-to-back over the course of two days. That’ll wear anyone out! But debaters develop their ENDURANCE in these trials, so they can keep debating no matter what.

  12. Students who practice debate develop supercharged PERSUASION skills that they can use to CHANGE the world!

Despite all these powers, debaters still need your help. Your support on Give to the Max Day on November 17th is crucial to helping them #ElevateDebate. Are you up to the challenge?

The First Tournament of the Year

A debate student is awarded a red medal at a debate tournament

It’s early in the morning, the sun is rising, and the Washington Technology Magnet School in St. Paul is already a bustling hub of activity. In the halls staff members dash this way and that, making sure that everything is ready to run smoothly. But today isn’t a school day – this is a Saturday, and it’s time for the first UDL tournament of the season.

From the moment they arrive, students are excited and ready to debate. The cafeteria at Wash-Tech fills to the brim with students of all stripes and styles. There are teams dapperly dressed in suits and formalwear, teams marked by matching polos, and plenty of teams whose students wear whatever they want! (After all, debate is a space where what you say matters more than how you look.) They’ve brought expanding folders and sometimes entire plastic tubs filled with evidence and arguments for the day ahead.

This year’s policy is about the United States’ foreign relations with China, and this tournament was the first chance for debaters to make arguments for and against it in a competitive space. For the rookies, it’s their first time ever at a tournament. For the varsity debaters, it’s their first opportunity to cut their teeth on the topic that will be the subject of their fiercely competitive debates over the next few months. So it’s no wonder if they’re a bit nervous.

But it’s not all competition – there’s fun and games at a debate tournament. Students warmed up in the morning by mixing themselves up and meeting students from other teams, eventually playing the classic icebreaker “two truths and a lie.” A tournament like this is a great opportunity for students who might otherwise never see each other to mix and mingle. For lots of students, it’s the friends they make in debate that keeps them coming back year after year.

The preparations paid off, and the Wash-Tech tournament went off without a hitch.Tournaments are where students have the chance to prove themselves competitively and test their research and argumentation skills. Even students who don’t win every round are developing the resilience to pick themselves back up after a loss and continue debating. Tournaments are places where debaters form lasting friendships, celebrating their victories and mourning their losses together.

An Unexpected Fundraiser

Debate trophies

Fundraising is an essential part of operating any nonprofit, and the MNUDL is no stranger to it. But we had a pleasant surprise the other day when Sukriti Rawal, a high school student from Edina, told us she had been raising funds for the MNUDL too. On her own initiative Sukriti organized and managed a garage sale, and now she had $500 to donate.

Gifts like that don’t usually just show up out of nowhere. But Sukriti has been debating for five years now, and she says it’s given her the confidence she needs for projects like this. That’s what has kept her coming back for five years – debating impacts every part of her life. She said “it made school a lot easier,” since she’s become better at thinking on her feet and at feeling certain when she is right.

That’s the kind of certainty that drives a student to success. “Debate is important for everyone,” Sukriti said. But unlike at her school in Edina, urban schools rely on the MNUDL to coordinate their debate programs. So she decided to support Urban Debate by holding a garage sale – by her reasoning, people are more willing to give money if they get something in exchange.

So much stuff was donated to the sale that it took Sukriti a week to go through and tag it all with prices. To get everything she would be selling, she mobilized the support of families in Edina, and was especially grateful for the help she received from the Indian community. Once everything was set up, she advertised it with local signs and on Craigslist. All this hard work made the sale wildly successful, raising enough funds to hit the target that Sukriti had set.

Here at the office, we’re flattered to see engagement like this just showing up unprompted. It speaks not only to the leadership abilities that debate programs nurture, but also to the relationships that get built between debaters. By attending UDL tournaments, Sukriti has had the opportunity to meet other students from the metro area. Students have varied lived experiences – but all come together in a shared love of debate. She’s chosen to strengthen those relationships and work to keep debate an activity that includes everyone.

Students Celebrate the Start of Debate

Against a background of pizza slices, text reads "Free Pizza, Kick-off Party, Join Debate"
The most effective way to get high school students to show up – free pizza.

The start of the school year is a hectic time for both students and teachers as everybody has to figure out new courses and new schedules. For debaters, September means kickoff parties that mark the start of the debate season. These gatherings are a time to welcome back our returning veterans and meet the new students who are interested in trying out debate (or maybe just the free pizza.)

Some students might have been new, but they were all excited to debate. They offered no shortage of challenges and counterarguments to Travis, the MNUDL Program Director, at the debate kickoff for the Washington Technology Magnet School. The moment he brought up this year’s debate topic, about USA-China relations, students started taking positions for and against.

It’s an abstract issue that was chosen by the National Speech and Debate Association, and some coaches were worried about how distant it is from student experiences. But these kids were eager to start discussing it, with nothing more than what they had already learned one way or another about the East Asian geopolitical situation. Sarah Wellington, their coach and a teacher at Wash-Tech, said that these students were advanced – they could handle the difficult material.

One returning debater, asked to explain to the newer students what had brought her back, said that debate made her feel smart. Alongside that she said it looks good on everything, from resumes to college applications. But what’s really important is how debate brings people together. Returning debaters had their friendships, and over the course of the kickoff the new students rapidly bonded with each other.

None of this would be possible without the coach, who helps lead her debate team on top of her responsibilities as a teacher. She greeted every student by name, new and veteran alike, and kept track of who hadn’t showed up yet. Our coaches are the backbone of the MNUDL, and they’re dedicated to their students.

Kickoff parties are a fun way to celebrate the start of the year with a few slices of pizza and some light-hearted discussions. These teams will buckle in and get serious as the season heats up, but for now it looks like things are off to a good start.

The Advocacy Unit


Debate skills make a difference in the world. The more voices we include in civil discourse, the stronger that discourse becomes. That’s why the MNUDL exists: to amplify student voices so that they can access power and create change in our communities. For this to work, it’s crucial that debate skills leave the classroom and that the building blocks of research, argumentation, and public speaking get put to use solving real world problems.

This past July, we launched The Advocacy Unit: a program where high schoolers can learn to apply basic debate skills in the context of social justice and advocacy. TAU is designed as a guided exploration in partnership with the students. Discussions were facilitated by MNUDL alums and Augsburg students Dua Saleh and Tiana Bellamy, whose input was essential to the program design. During the pilot session, only a week after the shooting of Philando Castile, issues of police brutality and racism weighed heavily on everyone’s mind as they discussed whether hope or change were possible.

Genesia Williams, TAU’s director, wanted to make sure she brought in “kids that might not self select,”she said, so that the program could “catch that intersection of kids that a lot of people don’t pay attention to.” The program confirmed for her what she had suspected before: that intelligent teens whose value is dramatically underestimated only need a little prompting to explore their potential.

One example of this was how Markell, a sophomore at North High School, was able to explain sophisticated concepts like “symbolic interactionism,” despite not knowing the academic term. Developing a shared vocabulary for concepts like these was a cornerstone of TAU. This was particularly helpful for Janae, a St. Paul resident heading into her freshman year who found herself equipped with tools she hadn’t known she needed. Genesia recalls her saying, “If school was like this, I’d be at school every day happy.”

The discussions also benefited from the wisdom of experienced students. Sideena, a high school senior from Robbinsdale, was the oldest of the group. She liked how the program allowed her to explore familiar issues in a new context. The same could be said of Michael, a high school junior from North Carolina who was used to personally dealing with racial profiling and police brutality in his home state. At TAU, he was able to connect the dots about his experiences and look at them from a new perspective.

The learning environment would not have been the same without the diversity of the voices. Students brought their backgrounds with them, like Rachel, a debater from Hong Kong who had lived with both a different educational system and a different racial and ethnic context in East Asia. She worked on the issue of environmental justice with Mihret, a student at DeLaSalle High School. Mihret had already learned about social issues in school, but at TAU she was exposed to other ways of looking at the same causes.

Debate is more than just arguing – it’s about talking to each other and building empathy across identities, communities, even nations. Watching the students connect with each other and learn from one another over the course of the week made organizing the whole program worth it for Genesia. Not only have the students learned more about advocating for themselves and their community, but they’ve got new Facebook friends from across the world.

For more about The Advocacy Unit, listen to Rupa Shenoy’s Otherhood podcast.

MNUDL Summer Fellows Are Finishing Off a Great Season

Moti Benti-Novotny worked at Deluxe Corporation
Moti Benti-Novotny worked at Deluxe Corporation
Zarina Sementelli worked at Gray Plant Mooty
Zarina Sementelli worked at Gray Plant Mooty

Summer is an important time for debaters. There’s no tournaments or after school practice–no school at all, in fact, and plenty of long summer afternoons. But dedicated debaters keep their skills sharp by attending the Minnesota Debate and Advocacy Workshop (MDAW), a summer camp managed by MNUDL and hosted at Augsburg. For students who need help covering the costs of MDAW, there are scholarships available. But sometimes a scholarship is not enough–some debaters need to work through the summer to support themselves or their families.

That’s why MNUDL offers the Summer Fellowship. Under this program, MNUDL partners with a local corporation or law firm who agrees to sponsor a debater for the summer. This debater attends MDAW for its full three weeks at no cost, and then spends four weeks doing experiential work for their sponsor. By doing so, students awarded the fellowship can not only go to debate camp but also have the opportunity to see what kind of professional work is available in fields that value debate experience.

This past summer we awarded two fellowships to rising seniors, Zarina Sementelli (Como Park, St. Paul) and Moti Benti-Novotny (Thomas Edison, Minneapolis). Zarina was sponsored by Minneapolis law firm Gray Plant Mooty, where she had the opportunity to network and work on small projects during her four-week work period. She described it as an eye-opening experience. “I was curious about what a law firm even was,” she said. “I had no idea how many different practices of law there are.”

But Zarina’s perspective has changed since meeting a variety of attorneys, judges, and staff during her time at Gray Plant Mooty – as many as 2-3 per day over the course of four weeks. “I thought it would be a little more boring,” she said. “They went out of their way and they got to know what I wanted to learn.”

Meanwhile, Moti spent his fellowship working for Deluxe Corporation on a large research project about various regulations and conditions that Deluxe has to comply with. He compiled regulatory factsheets for general use and made spreadsheet of different terms and conditions that Deluxe Employees had to be sure not to violate.

This let him stretch his debate skills, especially research, in a practical business context, rather than just reading it out of a textbook. “I have a better understanding of how all of it works together,” he said. It’s helping him plan out his future, too. “I don’t know about going into corporate work,” he said. But moving forwards he has a good grasp of the practical uses of debate skills.

When you’re planning for the future, your experiences are often the only map that can guide you. Debaters who want to take on the summer fellowship might not have that experience yet, but they can use a few pieces of advice left by Zarina and Moti. Moti says that whoever comes after him should make sure to “take notes, listen, pay attention to the words that are used and how they are used or else nothing will make sense.” Zarina suggests that you “tell them exactly what you’re interested in,” and “utilize the resources.” These debaters are leaving summer and taking a lot of memories with them – from debate camp to fellowship work.

This fellowship experience wouldn’t be possible without the partnerships between MNUDL and both Gray Plant Mooty and Deluxe Corporation. These partnerships were made possible by our advisory board members Dean Eyler, an attorney and shareholder at Gray Plant Mooty, and Linnea Solem, the Chief Information Officer at Deluxe Corporation. Previous summer fellows have been featured on our blog – read here about Chris Oquist’s fellowship experience last year.