Every student’s idea of a summer well spent is different. For some, it’s a time filled with family. For others, it’s a chance to find a job, spend time with friends, or decompress after the school year. For rising Westfield High School junior Jacob Lara, it’s a week spent learning to construct a compelling argument at the Houston Urban Debate League (HUDL) Summer Debate Institute.
“I was always interested in debate but didn’t know how to get into it. Our coach, Ms. Howard, came into my class to talk about this speech and debate camp one day, and I was like, ‘I’m going to join that,’” said Lara. “It’s more technical than I thought, but the more I know about it, the more I love it.”
In its 14th year, HUDL’s Summer Debate Institute—a free, five-day speech and debate camp—welcomes nearly 120 high school students from Houston Independent School District (Houston ISD) and CASE Debates programs in Harris County.
CASE Debates, an afterschool collaboration between HCDE’s Center for Afterschool, Summer and Enrichment for Kids (CASE for Kids) and HUDL, funds debate activities for at-risk high school students who would not otherwise be able to access them.
On Sunday, the young debaters checked into the University of Houston’s Cougar Village 1 dormitory, the place they would call home for the next five days. From then on, students and instructors spent virtually every waking moment aside from mealtimes honing the skills of civil discourse.
Novice students like Lara started off the general labs where they discussed the fundamental elements of an argument, including the claim, or basic idea of an argument; the warrant, or explanation of why the claim is true; the data, or supporting evidence; and the impact, or reason why the argument is important. Novice debaters also learned how to conduct academic research, present affirmative and negative arguments, and prepare for cross-examinations.
Lara says he can see the benefit of these skills for his other extracurricular activities, which include UIL swimming, yearbook, and an upcoming presidency for his school’s Future Farmers of America chapter.
“I’m already retaining information here that will help me be a better public speaker and a good president, hopefully,” he said.
More experienced debaters broke out into labs for Policy and World Schools Debate formats and focused on refining their skills and exploring different argument styles. Among their ranks were members of Alief Independent School District’s (Alief ISD) Elsik High School speech and debate team, Space City Violet, which took first place in the World Schools Debate event at the 2021 National Speech and Debate Championships.
Former team member and 2022 Elsik graduate Diego Castillo describes his experience returning to the Institute as a volunteer.
“It’s crazy to think that I was a complete novice in love at first sight at this camp. Coming here with all this debate behind me as an intern is kind of nostalgic,” he said.
For Castillo, the job is like coming full circle.
“It was after coming to this camp and working with Andy Stubbs, who works here at HUDL, that eventually led to state and then nationals the next year,” he said. “It’s good to give back to my community because I know that there are so many other people just like us here. All they need is to be taught and given opportunity. It feels good to know that I’m contributing to helping other people experience something similar, if not like a lot larger than what I got to experience.”
CASE Debates Coordinator Jimi Morales, who recently returned to Houston after more than 15 years of coaching speech and debate around the country, shares a similar sentiment about making debate accessible.
“We’re excited to be able to provide services for the whole county where free debate camp can happen for kids who otherwise wouldn’t get it,” he said. “It’s really a partnership because HUDL focuses on the city, and we’re responsible for the rest of the county in terms of making sure that programming is available.”
Bringing speech and debate to more schools in Harris County requires creating buy-in from educators, parents, and students, and the Institute drives that engagement, says Morales.
“Debate is treated as seriously as a sport in the context of how these kids are focused and adhere to UIL grade checks,” he said. “It’s kind of a double whammy where you get kids engaged doing something outside of school that’s positive and productive, but it’s also reinforcing their classroom skills, not just because they have to pass, but because they’re actually gaining the skills to make things easier inside the classroom.”
Speech and debate students that participate in HUDL and CASE Debates glean skills in high school that some don’t learn until they are well into adulthood. The young debaters develop the abilities to process deep philosophical concepts, objectively approach social issues, and confidently and respectfully engage peers and superiors.
Lara says the most valuable lesson is turning a loss into an opportunity.
“You’re going to lose. It’s inevitable,” said Lara. “But if you don’t make mistakes, did you really learn?”