MIDDLE SCHOOLERS DEBATE THE 'BIG QUESTION'

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November 15, 2020

For information on enrollment and registration at Notre Dame, please visit the admissions section of our website here.

Notre Dame Middle School, the largest middle school speech and debate program in the country, delivers 1,424 speeches in seven hours during this year's Big Questions debate event.

Notre Dame eighth graders Isabelle Gumma, left, and Lindsay Tomaszewski are in the quarterfinal round of this year's "Big Questions" debate with judge Brandon Jezdimir, who is the principal of Notre Dame Middle School. Gumma eventually finished first when the debate concluded Friday afternoon. 


Notre Dame’s debate program over the years has received high honor and awards both from state and national organizations. In March of last year, Notre Dame Middle School's debate team earned the ranking of 22 in a list of the top 100 school teams nationwide, an honor from NSDA shared with 99 high schools. 

Over the past four years, the middle school earned nearly 200 "degrees" from the National Forensic League for outstanding participation in speech and debate activities with the upper school compiling 89. Degrees are earned by students (and coaches) through speech and debate competition, community service and leadership activities.

According to LeAnne Schmidt, who teaches eighth-grade U.S. History and seventh-grade writing and manages all debate and forensic activities at NDPMA, Notre Dame Middle School also was awarded a rare third grant to conduct Big Questions debates during the school year.

Alessandra Castillo works on her argument during Friday's debate event.


Now, well into the first semester of the 2020-21 school year, Notre Dame Middle School's debate program was off to a flying start Friday as 73 eighth graders, including four who participated virtually, competed in four rounds of this year's edition of the Big Questions Debate, which included 1,424 speeches in seven hours on a very busy day. For the two finalists, that meant eight separate debates in one day, a schedule that would challenge even the most seasoned competitors.

The national topic for this year's Big Questions debate topic was Resolved: Mathematics was discovered, not invented.

Schmidt noted that a few of the debaters and judges (high school students and staff) participated virtually due to some ongoing quarantine restrictions, but the schedule and all the sessions went off without a hitch. 

"While it isn't a topic directly from my curriculum, the focus on debate is an essential understanding for students as we begin our work on the United States Constitution," she added. "It's essential that students understand there are at least two perspectives on every issue and that it's important to listen to the merits and concerns of both before making a decision. The Constitution itself was created from the heated debate of the structure of the legislature as well as who 'counts' in population numbers, and how power should be distributed. My students understand that concept far better after debating a complex issue themselves."

One of the eighth-grade participants Friday was Dominic Sarti, who said he didn't think he would do well at all.

Christian Sohm, left, debates Sehaj Gill (virtually) as Head of School Andy Guest, who volunteered as a judge, looks on.


"I'm kind of surprised I got this far in the first place," he said after earning a spot in the semifinals. "I had the negative position in my first debate today and even though my opponent was really good, I ended up winning somehow. Afterward, I think I won because in the affirmative position, it was easier to defend my points and then attack my opponents points as well." 

Sarti and his classmate Isabelle Gumma advanced to the championship round, which was judged by Mark Roberts, Notre Dame's vice president for advancement,  with Gumma coming out on top.

Brandon Jezdimir, principal of the middle school and one of the judges for the event, said participating in debate is beneficial for all students no matter how well they do.

"This debate format really gives these kids the opportunity to dive deeper into subjects and to teach them how to defend a position no matter what it is," he said. "It also gives eighth graders the opportunity to see what they may encounter in high school."

Nate Seaman, center, debates Dominic Sarti with Librarian Steve Palizzi, who served as a judge during Friday's day-long event. Additional photos (from the opening round) are below.


Alessandra Castillo, who also advanced far in Friday's debate, said it was her second time doing the Big Questions Debate. She agrees with her principal that it was a valuable experience.

"I definitely feel this is beneficial because it not only helps improve your research skills, but it also helps improve your public-speaking skills and make you more comfortable presenting in front of a large group of people," she said. "I would consider doing this at the high school level because I enjoy the research aspect. Plus, I like the fact that you can debate people and prove you're right and they're wrong. It's just fun to do!"

More on the Big Questions debate and Notre Dame's middle school forensics program:
With a grant from the John Templeton Foundation, Big Questions debates are an opportunity to provide 20,000-25,000 discrete high school and middle school students per year a forum to confront issues that are rarely discussed in other areas of life.

The National Speech and Debate Association has worked with the Templeton Foundation to administer a grant for the development of debates focused on topics of science and philosophy since 2016, directing $1.5 million to host schools.

Research resources and instructional guides for the debate format are provided for students. Speeches presented in tournaments must be written by the students themselves. While a sample affirmative and sample negative case are provided in the guide, any student using the case in a round must be disqualified.

At Notre Dame Middle School, funds are used for the participation of all students at the membership level, which, along with tracking of classroom speeches and other speaking engagements both within and outside of school, allows most students to enter high school with a Degree of Honor from the National Forensic League. Students who choose to compete, do announcements, or participate in theatre generally enter high school with a Degree of Excellence. Notre Dame Middle School is currently the largest speech and debate program in the United States.

For information on enrollment and registration at Notre Dame, please visit the admissions section of our website here.

Comments or questions? mkelly@ndpma.org

Follow Notre Dame on Twitter at @NDPMA.

About Notre Dame Preparatory School and Marist Academy
Notre Dame Preparatory School and Marist Academy is a private, Catholic, independent, coeducational day school located in Oakland County. Notre Dame Preparatory School enrolls students in grades nine through twelve and has been named one of the nation's best 50 Catholic high schools (Acton Institute) four times since 2005. Notre Dame's middle and lower schools enroll students in pre-kindergarten through grade eight. All three schools are International Baccalaureate "World Schools." NDPMA is conducted by the Marist Fathers and Brothers and is accredited by the Independent Schools Association of the Central States and the National Association of Independent Schools. For more on Notre Dame Preparatory School and Marist Academy, visit the school’s home page at www.ndpma.org.

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