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Dallas Students’ Proposal to Teach Debate Skills to Third Graders Wins First Place at Civics Fair

A plan to improve third-grade literacy and higher order thinking skills through debate earned students from Judge Barefoot Sanders Law Magnet High School in Dallas first place in the annual Speak Up!

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A plan to improve third-grade literacy and higher order thinking skills through debate earned students from Judge Barefoot Sanders Law Magnet High School in Dallas first place in the annual Speak Up! Speak Out! civics fair organized by the Annette Strauss Institute for Civic Participation at The University of Texas at Austin.

Students from Duncanville High School earned second place for their proposed Middle School Anti-bullying Mentor Program and Dallas’s Booker T. Washington High School for the Performing and Visual Arts earned third place for addressing the Lack of Arts Education in the Dallas Independent School System.

JBS Law Magnet High School students Kelsey Annu-Essuman, Mike Garcia, Reuben Howard, Glyneisha Johnson, Yastril Nanez and Selena Yanez, led by teacher Angela Taylor, devised the “Little Debaters League” as their solution to addressing low literacy levels in their community.

“The students wanted to do a civics project based on something significant that could be realistically implemented. So they decided to look at their particular set of skills — debate — for inspiration. They recognized all they had learned in debate and wanted to share those skills with others,” said Taylor. “After doing some research, they discovered that problems resulting from low literacy levels, such as unemployment and crime, begin as early as third grade. From this the ‘Little Debaters League’ was born.”

The JBS Law Magnet High School’s “Little Debaters Project” has them partnering with a local third grade classroom to teach research, public speaking, writing, critical thinking and computer skills. Through the project, the third graders will have to read, analyze and evaluate various sources of information to help construct the arguments they will use in the debate rounds. The JBS Law Magnet High School students are working to implement the project in the fall 2011 semester. Ninety-nine students (36 via video conference from Austin and Corpus Christi) competed for funds to help implement their proposed solutions to local community problems.

Students spent the spring semester researching community problems such as class-based division among high school students, parental involvement in schools and the perception of urban high schools. The students then pitched their solutions to leaders from the Dallas community, including city government officials, non-profit and corporate leaders and professors.

Other high schools that competed in the Speak Up! Speak Out! civics fair include L.G. Pinkston High School, Trini Garza Early College High School and W.H. Adamson High School in Dallas. Naaman Forest High School in Garland, Akins High School in Austin and Collegiate High School in Corpus Christi will participate via videoconference.

The Speak Up! Speak Out! Program is a project-based civic education program that engages high school students in research and problem-solving around local community problems that matter to them. The civics fair is the program’s culminating event where students present their proposed solutions via table displays and speeches and compete for cash prizes to use toward the implementation of their solutions. In the past, topics have included a range of issues, including teen pregnancy, urban business development, water quality and bullying. The Speak Up! Speak Out! Civics Fair has a nine-year history in Central Texas and was introduced in Dallas this year.