EMSB Junior Debating culminates in finals among five schools

Some 65 elementary students took part in a challenging debate program at the English Montreal School Board during the 2023-2024 academic year. From Gardenview, Willingdon, Roslyn, Pierre de Coubertin and Dunrae Gardens, a select number of Grade 4 to 6 students were chosen by their teachers to leave regular class in order to participate in the EMSB Junior Public Speaking and Debating program. 

Aishwarya Honnavalli, Sarah Lubbe and Maia Mintzberg, facilitators from the Gifted & Exceptional Learners team of the Student Services department, divided among the schools to implement once-a-week hourly sessions on public speaking and debating. Participants delved into the topic of tourism and sustainability.

Dr. Camelia Birlean, who heads the board-wide enrichment program, designed the debating course in collaboration with Kiana Saint Macary, a PhD student in law from McGill University, who coaches in debate summer camps at McGill and was once president of the McGill Debating Union. It was brought into the board’s enrichment programming in 2021.

Dr. Birlean explained that the enrichment programs overall are designed to teach learners skills such as scientific inquiry, critical thinking and analysis, creative and complex problem-solving, collaboration and active listening. Specifically, the public speaking and debating program teaches students how to conduct a library search in order to locate valid and reliable sources, filter relevant sources, evaluate evidence and analyze arguments from multiple perspectives, identify biases and logical fallacies, and construct persuasive arguments based on evidence and logical reasoning.

“The skills we are aiming for in our debating program go beyond just being able to win an argument or convince someone to take your stance and see things your way,” Dr. Birlean explained. “Such skills prepare our students for future success, as they are essential for effective communication, building self-confidence, and fostering critical thinking and problem-solving abilities. We encourage our students to keep on inquiring and debating because ‘It is better to debate a question without settling it than to settle a question without debating it.’ (Joseph Joubert)”

The program started in the fall with lessons on persuasive speech. Students chose a topic of personal interest and learned how to build persuasive arguments supporting their stance orally in front of their classmates.

The finalists of the 2024 EMSB Junior Inter-School debate competition pause for a photo on May 3 at Willingdon Elementary School senior campus. From left: Finishing in second place were Isla Goodchild and Aoife Follett from Willingdon, and to their right were the champions from Dunrae Gardens, Miriam Todd and Charlotte Cassis. The teams debated the motion “This house believes that governments should prioritize sustainable tourism development over maximizing tourist arrivals.”

In the debating portion of the program, which began after the winter holidays, students learned how to use their research skills and logic to make effective arguments for and against a given motion by pairing up and eventually debating against other pairs within their school’s program. 

As in-school debating tournaments wrapped up, the team with the most points moved on to compete in an inter-school tournament, which took place on May 3, this year at the senior campus of Willingdon Elementary School in NDG.

The winning team was Miriam Todd and Charlotte Cassis from Dunrae Gardens Elementary School. Second place went to the Willingdon team led by Aoife Follett and Isla Goodchild. And in third place was Pierre de Coubertin, whose debaters were Brianna Pinto Bolarinho, Markus Muccino and Liam Pozzi.

Fun fact

The EMSB Junior Debating program uses the Canadian National Debate Format, a style of debate that includes teams of two. In these partnerships, debaters argue for and against a motion, using constructive speeches, summary and rebuttal speeches and the tactical “points of information.”

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