Burnet High School juniors Grace Gates (center) and Hayden Brown (right) finished 11th overall in Texas for Cross Examination debate. BHS teacher Willam Sims is their coach. Photo courtesy of Burnet Consolidated Independent School District
The Burnet High School cross examination debate team of Grace Gates and Hayden Brown are among the best in state, and there’s no arguing that. The duo competed in the Texas University Interscholastic League’s State CX Debate Contest from March 18-19 in Austin, where they finished 11th overall.
Preparation for debate season, which culminates at the state contest for those who make it that far, begins more than a year earlier when the UIL announces the state cross examination topic. The real work begins at the start of the school year. Gates and Brown began researching the topic last August. This year, the topic was “Resolved: The United States federal government should substantially increase its protection of water sources in the United States.”
“In CX debate, the teams all receive the same topic, usually in the form of a resolution that they debate all year long,” explained Williams Sim, Burnet High School debate coach. “At every debate contest, you could be arguing either the affirmative or negative. They don’t know what side they’ll be on until that tournament. So they really need to be ready for any argument you can imagine.”
Along with the research involved, Brown and Gates had to prepare an eight-minute constructive speech on why they believe the federal government should protect those resources. This is where competitive UIL cross examination debate gets interesting and exciting. The UIL doesn’t specify what argument or stand they should take in their speech, leaving it up to the students to decide among a myriad of possibilities.
In the students’ case, they decided to argue the federal government needed to do more to protect water resources as part of an effort to conserve wetlands for the benefit of the ecosystem and climate. They did an exhaustive amount of research before formulating their speech, which is also the basis for their affirmative argument in contests.
As they built their argument, Gates and Brown had a number of resources available, including pre-prepped, online debate arguments that colleges and universities create through their summer workshops. Gates said they usually start there.
“With this year’s topic, specifically, we went straight to our science teacher to ask about what some strong cases and arguments could look like,” Gates explained.
Along with bolstering their affirmative argument, the duo also had to prepare to argue against all of the possible angles from competing teams.
“Preparing the negative side of an argument is definitely one of the more difficult aspects of preparing for a tournament because we don’t know what the other side will be arguing,” Brown said. “Preparing for negative requires a pretty solid understanding of the topic.”
The Burnet High School Cross Examination Debate team competed in a number of tournaments during the year. To even be considered for the state tournament, a team must have competed in at least eight rounds of debate. Usually, a team can pick up to two or three rounds per tournament.
One round includes 12 different steps starting with the eight-minute affirmative speech followed by cross examination from one of the negative side team members. Then, there’s an eight-minute negative speech, followed by cross examination. Later, the teams offer an additional affirmative or negative speech with additional cross examination, along with rebuttals.
The two improve with every round and tournament, they said.
“We use feedback from the judges and old ballots constantly,” Gates said. “We take them to every tournament with us, and it’s one of the first things we ask for after a round. Hayden and I are both athletes, so we understand that being coachable makes you better. We take almost every critic into consideration going into our next round because we want to win.”
Preparation for debate can be as time consuming as sports.
“We put in about four and a half hours per week preparing our arguments, and the week leading up to a tournament, we could be putting in an additional one to five hours of work, depending on how much we need to prepare,” Brown said.
At the state tournament, Gates and Brown went 3-1 the first day, earning a spot in Octofinals (16 remaining teams) on day two, where they finished 11th overall.
The skills they learn and use in debate go beyond the tournaments.
“I use debate all the time in other classes,” Gates said. “Debate has greatly improved my reading and research skills, which I use in English all the time. And, of course, understanding politics and resolving conflict comes in handy in my history class, too.”
Though the 2021-22 UIL cross examination season is barely over, they two are already eyeing next year’s competition. The topic is about NATO, biotechnology, cybersecurity, and artificial intelligence.
“Hayden and I started thinking about possible arguments for next year on our way home from state a few weeks ago,” Gates said. “It takes a lot of work, but we’re already looking forward to getting back at it so that we can have a really successful senior year.”