Saturday | April 18, 2015
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Students polish debate skills at forum

After about an hour of spirited debate, the judges and audience unanimously agreed: Kahakai Elementary’s fifth-grade debate team had prevailed over their opponents — a teacher, a high school senior and a West Hawaii attorney.

Rawley Lachance, speaking in the council chambers at the West Hawaii Civic Center Saturday afternoon, opened the affirmative constructive statement in support of the resolution, “The United States ought to guarantee universal health care for its citizens.” He pointed out social disadvantages of the United States’ current free market system, arguing that insurance shouldn’t be for the “select few,” but for everyone.

The Kahakai team continued, citing myriad studies supporting their case. The costs of insurance adversely affect small business, they said. In addition, health care costs, even for the insured, contribute to 50 percent of personal bankruptcy cases. The students ended their opening statement defending the constitutionality of the resolution under the umbrella of the general welfare clause.

Kailua-Kona Attorney Darl Gleed led the negative cross examination questioning the necessity of government mandated health care. If it was necessary for “general welfare,” he asserted, what else could constitute a necessity? He asked the young debaters if a vehicle should be deemed necessary for general welfare and whether a car should be guaranteed under the Constitution.

Emma Willis was ready with an answer and able to support her case. Transportation is not a matter of “life or death,” she argued, dismissing the attorney’s spurious challenge.

The debate continued, following the Lincoln-Douglas format, allowing each side to state their case and rebut the other’s arguments.

The winning side, also including Aiden Willis and Luka Wohl, were pitted against Kealakehe High School senior Isaac Han and the school’s Justin Brown.

Brown, Kealakehe’s Career and Technical Education Coordinator and director of the school’s Advanced Global Citizenship program, which hosted the weekend’s Civic Engagement and Policy Forum, also served as a mentor to the fifth-graders.

Roughly 50 eighth- through 12th-graders from Konawaena Middle and Kealakehe High schools participated in county, state, national and global government simulations during the forum, in addition to the Saturday debate.

The Kahakai fifth-grade team was coached by Kealakehe students Kaylee DePonte and Ken Stallman. The two took on the challenge as part of their senior projects. At the beginning of the school year, DePonte said, 10 fifth-graders were meeting weekly. Over time, the team was whittled down to four.

“Being a debater takes hard work and commitment,” DePonte said. The skills for those who stick with it are “beneficial in high school and college.” She plans to use her speaking skills, and persuasive techniques, in the future. Next year, she begins her studies at the University of Hawaii to pursue early childhood education.

Stallman added, “No matter how young you are, don’t think your voice can not be heard. Anyone can be a global citizen.” He plans to major in political science at UH.

The seniors began teaching the elementary students games, debate skills and how to speak clearly. As the school year progressed, they helped the fifth-graders research controversial topics and learn to understand and defend both sides of an issue.

Brown was impressed with the work of his seniors. DePonte and Stallman wrote all of the lesson plans for the fifth-grade practice sessions, asking themselves what discussions each question would prompt among the younger students. Brown oversees about 20 programs at Kealakehe — programs he equates to academic sporting events. His aim is to empower kids to think. Events like the weekend forum get students excited about competition, and like sports, give them an audience to celebrate their achievements.

Brown continued, “Just being able to follow information for 45 minutes (is something I would) love to see every citizen do. To see fifth-graders doing it is pretty exciting.”

The Kahakai students were pleased with the verdict and the experiences they gained through debate.

Aiden Willis said that being a member of the team helped “with a lot of things,” including improved social skills and being able to learn from other members. He set a goal for himself to not be nervous on the big stage. After hard work and preparation, “I was kinda nervous, but I wasn’t as nervous as I thought I’d be.”

His twin sister, Emma, said she didn’t know what universal health care was before her team began researching the topic in February. “It’s just amazing how much you can learn,” she said. Debate “helps me feel like I have a voice in the world.”

Wohl said he’s “always loved talking out loud.” After joining debate, he realized this natural skill could be put to good use. “Your voice counts in the world,” he said. “This is a great opportunity.”

Gleed, likewise, was impressed by the students’ performance. The debate was “much more intense than I expected.”

The students are “destined for some pretty good experiences at upper education levels,” he said. Gleed then added he would “keep an eye on them as my law firm expands.”