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Cheyenne’s Central High student Kinsale Day, 16, participates in the information speaking semifinal during the regional speech and debate tournament Saturday, Dec. 21, 2019, at Cheyenne’s East High. Students from 28 schools across Wyoming, Colorado, Florida and Georgia traveled to Cheyenne to compete in the two-day tournament. Michael Cummo/Wyoming Tribune Eagle

CHEYENNE – About 800 students packed Cheyenne’s East High on Friday and Saturday to argue and inform, lending their voices to a wide range of issues at the annual Holiday Classic speech and debate tournament.

One of the largest tournaments in the region, the Holiday Classic attracts participants mostly from schools in Wyoming and northern Colorado, but this year’s event included one school from Georgia and another from Florida.

“This one’s almost intimidating,” said McKenzie Wilson, a student at Cheyenne’s Central High. “But also, it’s really nice seeing other people and other competition. You can learn from bigger tournaments because you see what judges like, what they don’t like, and just how other people do things and can make yourself better. So, I like the bigger tournaments because you’re always learning.”

The event is a bid tournament, meaning that students who do well enough at the competition can earn a bid toward qualifying for the national tournament.

Hosting the event requires months of planning, including recruiting hundreds of people from the community to serve as judges, said Marcus Viney, head coach of speech and debate at East High. Serving as a judge doesn’t require any special knowledge or training, and judges can sign up to judge a single round and leave or spend the day judging numerous events.

“Everybody feels like they’re not qualified, but you are,” Viney said of judging. “These events really are designed for people to walk off the street and come in and enjoy it.”

Each round lasts at least an hour, with events spread throughout about 90 rooms in the school. The season lasts from October to March, and students spend months working on each topic.

“It’s a constantly ongoing adjustment,” said Arianna Lewis, a senior at Central High, who was a state champion in her events last year. “There’s not a single person here who isn’t each week fixing their piece and adapting it. I spend at least a couple hours every night working on this stuff.”

Topics change every couple of months and cover a wide range of issues, with some speeches chosen by the students, and some debate pieces assigned by the National Speech and Debate Association. Debate competitors must argue both sides of their assigned topics.

“The content area that we cover is pretty vast, and the knowledge that we have on each one of these topics is really – it’s immense,” said Lewis, who competed in a Lincoln-Douglas debate about subsidies for fossil fuels and an informative speech about data collection by Ring doorbells. “We really know what we’re talking about for these two months that we have to do it.”

Speech events range from informative to drama and poetry. Current debate topics include subsidies for fossil fuels, the sale of military arms to other countries and the government’s use of offensive cyber operations. Students who compete in the extemporaneous event draw topics at random and have 30 minutes to prepare their presentation.

While most events are individual competitions, public forum debates include two-person teams, and congressional debates emulate the U.S. Congress, with students introducing resolutions and other students cross-examining them and voting on their proposal.

“In speech and debate, there’s an opportunity for everybody to find something they love,” said Jayden Roccaforte, a junior at East High. “Whether it’s acting, making a point, telling a story or debating a resolution, I think there’s just a spot for everyone.”

The activity helps students build skills with real-world applications, including an ability to understand both sides of controversial issues, a drive to continually seek out knowledge and information, and effective communication skills, said Rachel Christoph, head speech and debate coach at Cheyenne’s South High.

“Definitely I’m a little more comfortable with public speaking, and it’s just a confidence booster overall,” said Teya Storer, a sophomore at South High, who competed in poetry.

Joelle Pina, a senior at South High, competed in drama and an informational speech that focused on how photography has shaped perspectives on the world wars. She said participating in speech and debate has made her more extroverted.

“My confidence has soared,” Pina said. “I definitely speak a lot better than I used to because my speaking pattern was definitely worse at the beginning of this.”

The amount of time spent preparing for tournaments varies, with some students, like East High senior Gabrianna Wood, preparing and practicing their pieces “every waking minute,” and others fitting it in between other activities.

“I think speech and debate is special because it really gives a credible platform to people our age,” said East High senior Saga McAllister. “The community itself really emphasizes the idea that it doesn’t matter who you are or where you come from, what you have to say matters.”

The confidence students gain from the activity has lifelong benefits.

“This activity isn’t just about getting up and speaking your mind. Yes, that’s super important, but it also gives you the confidence that you need later on in life,” said East High senior Faith Powell. “This is a place where you feel like you belong. This entire community really inspires that so much. Not only do you feel like you can say what you want to say, but you have the confidence to do what you can.”

Aysia Marces, a senior at East High, said she was shy before joining the activity in her sophomore year, and speech and debate has helped her figure out who she is and what she values. She also learned to be more empathetic and understanding of other people’s perspectives and met some of her best friends in the activity.

Learning how to research and understand both sides of an argument is an important skill to help students get closer to understanding the truth of an issue, East High senior Mike Swidecki said.

About 100 students are enrolled in the speech and debate program at East High, which is ranked at about 40 among almost 4,000 teams in the nation, coach Viney said. Central High has about 45 or 50 students in the activity, and South High has 25 to 40.

“The No. 1 reason I like to do this is because it transforms kids,” Viney said. “You can take a shy kid, somebody who’s maybe apologizing for their presence, and when they leave after four years they have a voice and they have confidence and they can walk into a room and not feel like they’re not supposed to be there.”

Jonna Lorenz is a freelance journalist living in Cheyenne who has more than 20 years of experience. She can be reached by email at jonnalorenz@gmail.com.

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