Thoughts on Middle-School Forensics

by Bill Prater, Coach, Findlay & Whitmer High Schools (Toledo)

You may say I’m a dreamer,

But I’m not the only one;

I hope someday you’ll join us

And the world will be as one.

It’s hard to believe that John Lennon’s iconic song “Imagine” was released to the world 47 years ago.  However, even as we look back almost a half-century later, his words ring just as true now as they did then.

For me, that world is Speech and Debate.

Over my 19 years of coaching, one constant has never wavered: we are a group of individuals doing everything we can to improve the lives of the high school students of this state.

Every year OSDA alumni come back and regale us with the stories about how they continue to use skills they learned from forensics as they move through their adult lives.  Being the dreamer that I am, the prospect of expanding what we do to the middle school students in the state of Ohio means that more students will be exposed to the life lessons and enjoyable experiences that Speech and Debate bring.

And—like John Lennon—I’m not the only one.  The passion that is now being displayed by the students, coaches, parents, and administrators at the middle-school level has grown exponentially in just a short amount of time.

However, as with any new endeavor, there are going to be bumps in the road.

The Middle School Committee knew this would be the case when we were formed just over a year ago.  As chair of the Middle School Committee (as we enter year two), I would like to explain to you the vision that we see for middle-school forensics as it continues to grow in the state of Ohio.

Middle-school speech and debate are a living, breathing organism—thus, changes will continue to be made on the fly.  But I hope that if we give all of you a better understanding of what it is we see for middle school competition in Ohio, maybe someday you will join us.


“The passion that is now being displayed by the students, coaches, parents, and administrators at the middle-school level has grown exponentially in just a short amount of time.”


First and foremost, let me say that we on the Middle School Committee know that different coaches and programs have different end-goals when it comes to what they want to achieve from middle-school speech and debate.  We do not wish to intervene with any of that. Our goal was, and continues to be, to do the best we can to create an educational and enjoyable competitive experience for our middle-school forensicators.

Therefore, we have looked at the setup of several different states and how they run their middle-school programs.  We have looked at how best to incorporate what we already do with high school to best fit our middle-school students.  This involves everything from choosing the competitive categories to the manuals that govern competition.

Of course, there may be disagreement in what is offered, which would be similar to disagreement at the high-school level.  We all have categories we would like to see added.

Nevertheless, our vision is more about skills than categories.

What skills do middle-school students need, and what skills will help them as they move on to compete in high school?  That is the goal within athletics, as it is in the classroom.  By operating within a system that is skills-based instead of category-based, students can learn the big picture of debate, interpretation, public address, and limited prep—instead of merely learning a category.

I am fortunate to be entering my 5th year of coaching middle-school students.  These students are doing remarkable things, and it is our job—our duty—to do everything we can to teach them, and to allow them to learn and grow.

The exponential rate at which middle-school programs are growing across the state is exciting, and we want to do everything we can to ensure that this continues.  You may say that I’m a dreamer, but I see a time when we have separate middle-school tournaments.

At the National Tournament, the National Speech and Debate Association always has the middle-school National Champions come on stage during the high school ceremony to showcase what NSDA deems the “future of speech and debate.”  (This year, they even had elementary-school students.)

It was fun to see.  But it made me think.

Middle school isn’t the future; it’s the present.  When (not if) we teach our middle-school students to speak, write, research better than they did the day before—we only make the world a better place.


“[O]ur vision is more about skills than categories.”


As I said before, forensics is a living organism.  As we enter the “terrible twos” of our Middle-School Committee, we know there will be growing pains.  We will all continue to have different goals and expectations, and that’s fantastic.

But we must have the same vision.

We’re making conscious decisions to best instill the skills that will benefit students not only as they enter high school, but eventually as they enter adulthood.

So I hope that today (not someday) you will join us, and we can speak and debate as one.