By Jon Reed

BIRMINGHAM, Alabama — Mahogani Beverly says she likes to argue a lot in school. Monday night, the W.E. Putnam Middle School eighth grader wasn’t picking fights with her teacher, though. She was arguing with other students, and she had research to back her up.

Beverly and dozens of other students from Birmingham middle schools gathered at John Herbert Phillips Academy downtown to debate as part of the first year of the SpeakFirst program, which teaches students how to argue their ideas and think critically about different issues.

“It’s basically what we do at school, you argue with the teachers,” Beverly said.

But it’s about more than arguing, SpeakFirst Middle School Coordinator Jacqueline Koncsol said.

“Middle school is just such an important time to start building reading comprehension, critical thinking and speaking skills,” she said. “It’s really cool to see them synthesizing what they’ve learned and speaking it out loud.”

The program is an outgrowth of the SpeakFirst program, run by the nonprofit Impact Alabama, which runs debate programs at several high schools in the Birmingham area. That program is in its 10th year, Koncsol said, but this is the first year they’ve done the middle school program. It includes about 70 students at Putnam, Phillips, W.J. Christian K-8, Hayes K-8, Wilkerson Middle and Huffman Middle schools, she said.

Each school has two coaches — AmeriCorps members working with Impact Alabama — and one of the high school coaches also helps run the program.

Wilkerson eighth-grader Carlos Garcia said the program has helped him with his public speaking skills.

“Before I started debate, I was horrible at speaking in public,” he said, “but it really took the nerve off and I feel like I’ve gotten a lot better.”

His teammate, Wilkerson eighth-grader Michael Witherspoon, said he loved the thrill of the debate and it’s helped him pick up some new words.

“It helps me on my vocabulary,” he said. “I know a lot of words now that I didn’t know before.

The competition Monday night consisted of rounds that lasted about 20 minutes apiece. The rounds began with opening speeches by one member of each team, and then they debated in a “cross-fire” session. Then the other team members rebutted the opposing side’s argument with speeches and a “cross-fire” session. Both sides then wrapped their positions up with focus speeches.

Many students said their favorite part was the cross-fire session, in which they can ask questions of their opponents.

“When you ask them a question and they can’t get it right, you know you’ve got them where you want them,” said Desirae Clark, a seventh-grader at Putnam.

Monday night’s topic was whether or not students should be paid for good grades, Koncsol said. And passion doesn’t help here — students can’t just argue the side of the issue they agree with.

“They have to be proficient with both sides of the argument,” she said. “It really challenges them to research and know the other side.”

Juanita Riles, an eighth-grader at Wilkerson, said she’s loved the program and hopes to keep doing it when she’s in high school.

“I love to speak my mind,” she said.


The winners of Monday night’s competition, by school, were:

Best Affirmative Case: Putnam Middle School

Best Negative Case: Hayes K-8 School

1st Place Speaker: W.J. Christian K-8 School

2nd Place Speaker: Phillips Academy

3rd Place Speaker: Wilkerson Middle School

1st Place Team: W.J. Christian K-8 School

2nd Place Team: Phillips Academy

3rd Place Team: Huffman Middle School

School Champions: W.J. Christian K-8 School (won 72% rounds)