Off Campus

Debaters take Toronto: Three seniors compete in international public speaking competition

The school landed its best placement yet at the International Independent Schools Public Speaking Competition (IISPSC) in Toronto last month, when Talia Belz, Sophie Collins Arroyo, and Harry Golen (all ’19) came in first among American schools and eighth overall. Talia and Sophie placed first and second, respectively, among the American competitors.

Prior to this year, the school had never placed within the top 10 teams. Talia and Sophie’s performances qualified them for the World Individual Debating and Public Speaking Championship (WIDPSC), also held in Toronto in April 2019.

“My experience on the team has come full circle, which is surreal to think about,’’ Talia said, remembering being a freshman and looking up to the senior captains when they qualified for worlds. “After four years, hard work has paid off, and I’ve accomplished some goals that I never thought I would reach.”

IISPSC, which is held annually at a location in North America, hosts approximately 160 students from around the world, including those from countries like India, South Africa, and South Korea, for three days of competition in various debate and speech events. Talia, Sophie, and Harry earned their spots through an internal competition within the school’s 40-member team. That took place last May and was judged by English Teacher and Debate Coach Sarah Getchell and last year’s IISPSC competitors, Aurash Vatan ’19, Adam Levin ’18, and Chris Attisani ’18.

Talia, Sophie, Harry, and Ms. Getchell arrived in Toronto on Tuesday, October 23, and spent Wednesday practicing in the hotel for the competitions that ran from Thursday to Sunday.

Each team member participated in three chosen events. Talia read Edgar Allen Poe’s short story, A Tell-Tale Heart, as part of the Interpretive Reading event, argued for or against various resolutions with a partner from another country as part of the Parliamentary Debate event, and recited a humorous prepared speech about college admissions as part of the After-Dinner Speaking event. Sophie delivered a prepared speech about the wage gap as part of the Persuasive Speech event and competed in Impromptu Speaking, which required her to draw a topic from an envelope and brainstorm for two minutes to prepare for a three- to five-minute speech. She also competed with Harry in the Cross-Examination Debate category, in which teams argued about whether governments should remove monuments that no longer align with modern-day values. Harry also took part in Parliamentary Debate and Extemporaneous Speaking, where he had 30 minutes to prepare for a three- to six-minute speech on various current events topics without any outside resources. 

Talia said that Sophie and Harry were selfless in helping her get ready for the competition and that they all played off each other’s strengths to make the team stronger. In the weeks leading up to the tournament, the team held several longer practices after school when Talia, Harry, and Sophie practiced their speeches and debated in front of their teammates for feedback on every event.

Talia also expressed appreciation for the unique opportunity to meet an international group of other young adults who are passionate about speech and debate.

“It’s inspiring to see people from all over the world come together and debate current events or make each other laugh and to be in the presence of such talented individuals,” she said. 

Sophie said participating in debate has broadened her perspective on the pieces that come together to make a whole argument and opened her up to the idea that every debate always has two sides. The competition highlight for her, she said, was during the persuasive speaking portion when she discussed the wage gap and argued that boys and girls should be raised similarly, with girls encouraged to be more assertive and confident. One of her judges wrote that Sophie’s speech convinced her to raise her daughter differently.

“That comment was particularly meaningful because even though the problems I address in my persuasive speeches are real-world problems, I don’t usually think of myself giving a speech at a debate competition as having a real-world impact,” Sophie said. “This proved to me that words can have a tangible impact on people.”

Harry said he was impressed by Talia and Sophie’s placements.

“[They] really blew me away in how well they did in the results. We had expected to do well, but not that well!” he said. 

He added that he believes their success can be attributed to their confidence. 

“They’ve been so engaged in the debate world since freshman year,” Harry said. “I think they were a lot more comfortable than other competitors, which gave them an edge.”

Ms. Getchell said this year’s results are encouraging, evidence that the team continues to grow and improve. Next year, when the school will host IISPSC for the first time, she added, all debaters on the school team will either be able to participate in the tournament or be involved as timers, observers, and organizers.

“For us, it will be really different and exciting,” she said, “because rather than three people getting access to the high-level debating at [IISPSC] with people from all over the world, the whole team will get access to that.”

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