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Shelby County Schools Students Learn the Art of Debate

Shelby Debate Society preps kids for real-world decision-making.



"I'll tell you right now, I've seen students who really turned things around. It's like a light comes on. They connect with learning. They say: 'I may not run the hundred­yard dash or throw for a touchdown. But this is fun. This is my slam dunk."'

And that is how Dwight Fryer — executive director of the Shelby Debate Society in partnership with Shelby County Schools and the nonprofit Shelby Debate Commission (founded by Memphis businessman James Sdoia) — describes what he's seen time and again: local public school students introduced to and benefiting from the countywide debate program for middle- and high-school students. It's a program that this year will involve more than 250 young people from two dozen public schools and four charter schools.

These days, Fryer, a former corporate executive and author (his debut novel, The Legend of Quito Road, was nominated for an NAACP Image Award), is gearing up for this year's debate season, which begins on the varsity level on September 20th at Overton High School. Tournament rounds continue throughout the academic year at other Shelby County Schools. The winning team then moves to the national tournament, sponsored by the National Association for Urban Debate Leagues, to compete against squads from 18 other cities. Local debate champions Marvin Wilkins Jr. and Alexis Thornton of Middle College High School and runner­ups Victoria Meeks and Jamila Miller, graduates of the Soulsville Charter School, represented Memphis in the nationals this past spring.

Marvin Wilkins Jr. and a debate opponent
  • Marvin Wilkins Jr. and a debate opponent

Next April's nationals take place at the University of Southern California, but this month Fryer is busy recruiting and training the Memphis coaches and judges who have volunteered their time and expertise with these goals in mind: encouraging students to develop their communication skills, reach their career objectives, and better serve the community.

Studies on the benefits of debate training are proving just how valuable it can be:

"Our debate students already outperform non­debaters in several key academic measures, including GPA, graduation rates, ACT scores, TCAP scores, and lower truancy rates," Fryer said. "So we know that great students choose debate. We also believe that research will show that debate helps produce great students."

That's the idea behind EBA: evidence­based argumentation, a teaching method that brings debate principles into the everyday classroom. Carol Johnson, former school superintendent in Memphis, then Boston, is a strong supporter of EBA. Paul Deards, a teacher in New York City, is, too. His August 18th essay for Education Week argued for the benefits of debate training for all students. Among the skills required: critical thinking; sound argument; close listening; and team spirit — plus a value often overlooked in today's climate of polarizing public opinion: empathy. Fryer calls that core value "being able to disagree without being disagreeable."

One Memphis mother called debate something else: a means of helping her twin son and daughter think through the choices they make. According to Fryer:

"She had a set of twins in our debate league and wrote in an email, out of the blue: 'They don't even realize it, but I now see them weighing their decisions in ways they never used to.' And isn't that what we want all our young people to do?"

For more on the Shelby Debate Society, volunteer opportunities, and to give your financial support, go to To learn about the urban debate league movement, go to

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