Are you a Super Hero?

I participated in my final regular season Forensics/Speech and Debate tournament as head coach this weekend, and last night at the awards, each of the coaches shared something they had learned from participating in this thing we call Speech and Debate.

One shared that he had learned that the effective use of language to manipulate, persuade, or change people’s thinking was a super power. I completely agree. If we think about all of the language we see, hear, and use each day that is shared in the name of persuading us to buy a product, behave in a specific way, or agree/disagree with a belief, it is difficult to disagree.

The coach ended his talk by saying that the responsibility of using this particular super power is huge, and like all super powers it must be used only for good.  We all envisioned Spiderman when he said that and the 100+ high school students cracked up, but he made a great point.

Though he was talking to a room full of speakers, I instantly thought of my writing.  When we write words that others will read, whether through a blog, novel, story, essay, article, or even website content, we have some sort of purpose. Generally those are to inform, persuade, or entertain, but in each case, we somehow influence our readers. That is power.

I’ve been thinking, am I using that power for good?   Are you?

(Image is Royalty Free clipart from Microsoft Office.)

If I can write, I can write . . . right?

This past weekend, I had a two by four hit me in the head again, as life hammered another lesson home.  It’s a lesson that I’ve learned before, but one that I clearly needed to learn again, hence the two by four.

On Friday morning, my alarm went off at 4 am, so I could catch the bus with my Forensics/Speech and Debate team to head six hours across the state of Nevada for our state tournament.  Twenty plus schools headed north from Vegas and the rest came in from the northern half of the state.  There’s not a whole lot in the middle of the state of Nevada, so it really was a “Civil War” type tournament, a true North vs. South contest.

There are seven speech events and three debate events to compete in.  We could enter two kids/teams per event.  Because many of my top competitors had a conflict this weekend and couldn’t go, I took some novice competitors and put them in events in which they hadn’t competed previously in order to fill as many slots as possible.  We practiced, and I felt that since they were solid speakers, they would be fine. They were.  In fact, one novice speaker made it into final rounds in Domestic Extemporaneous Speaking which means out of approximately 50 competitors, he was in the top six . . . statewide.  He ended up placing sixth in finals, but a sixth place ranking at a state tournament is pretty impressive.  In fact, I’d even say its college application worthy.

So how is this a lesson for me?  The lesson is that (drumroll here) . . . skills transfer.  If my student is an excellent debater, then it makes sense that he’s also a good, I mean excellent, extemporaneous speaker.

I have always wanted to write and when I was in high school, my mom encouraged me to write my stories down.  Like many teenage girls, I ignored her and told myself that I couldn’t because what could she possibly know?  I wasn’t good at it, and I knew everything -  sorry Mom.  When I was in college, I finally acquiesed and took a creative writing class.  It was a disaster.  I hated the class, the teacher, and the stories I wrote.  It solidified to me that I wasn’t a good fiction writer.  I could write essays and non-fiction with ease, but fiction threw me.

Last year, when I decided to start writing a novel as well as a blog I had to overcome this hurdle.  I had thought for twenty years that fiction was out of my reach, so it was a BIG hurdle.  To overcome it,  I wrote a short story and a few scenes, and I learned that my writing skills transfer.  If I can write, I can write . . . right? Though fiction requires a different skill set, the basics are the same.  Writing is writing.  This blog has taught me that lesson because I’ve asked myself numerous times over the last year, what is a blog exactly? What is the genre?  It requires skills in essay writing, personal narrative, analysis, how-to writing, fiction and reflective writing.  It requires solid writing skills in terms of structure, organization, grammar, and punctuation.  In writing one to three blog posts a week over the past year, I have worked on these skills.

Though I’ve worked on these skills, I still question myself, wonder if what I’m doing is any good at all or if I’m writing an entire “practice” novel. Many people do, and then I begin doubting myself again which I have been doing over the past few weeks.  My student’s success this weekend reminded me that I CAN do this.   I’ve learned, yet again, that skills transfer.  If he can successfully speak in a debate round and transfer those skills to an extemp round, then maybe I am not doomed to write essays my entire life because at the ripe old age of nineteen I decided that’s what I was good at.

Nobody else (besides my Dad who loved it – of course) has read my fiction, but I have learned over the past year to believe in myself and my writing.  If I can write a blog for a year, then maybe I can write a novel too. I’ve only got about 8000 words to go . . . I can do this.

How do you say a word without really saying it?

I had an interesting conversation with one of my students this past week.  He decided that since he has been suffering from a severe case of Senioritis since August, now that the Forensics season is almost over, he’d like to write a new expository speech.  Apparently, his apathy might be wearing off, but we’ll see if the speech actually gets written.  For those of you who don’t know, an expository speech is a ten minute informational speech using visual aids.  The kids make these elaborate “boards” that have interactive elements and pictures that go along with their speech.

“Okay,” I said.  “Any idea what you want to write it on?”

He grinned.  “Ya, bad words, like . . . the F-word.”  He paused, “Can I do that?”

“I don’t know,” I answered. “Can you write a whole speech without ever saying your topic? Can you dance around it that much? Because you can’t swear in your speech.  I won’t let you compete if you swear.”

He smiled. “Yep, that’s the challenge. I think I can do it.”  We then proceeded to think of all the ways people have devised to refer to a swear word, or even swear, without ever really swearing.  Fudge is one example.  A more current one is “Frick.” People will actually say, “Oh fudge” and “what the frick?”  Really?

Here are the strategies we’ve come up with so far.

  1. Use a word that sounds similar to the offensive word but is oddly benign.  Fudge, for example.
  2. Use any word that has the same initial sound and final sound such as “frick” or “shoot.”  This is similar to #1.
  3. Or, just use the initials.  Texting has brought this one to the forefront.  WTF sounds for something other than Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday for example.
  4. Cut out the bad part and use the initial.  Everybody knows what an a-hole is, but technically, you haven’t said the “bad” part of the word.  If you don’t know what one is, it is not the hole that comes before the b-hole.
  5. Use a non-word.  I’m not sure how to type this as it is a totally verbal usage.  It would work in a speech though. Two examples that come to mind are from the film The Christmas Story, one of my all-time favorites.  Example #1 – when Ralphie loses all the nuts to the tire and his Father has a tirade, and Example #2 – when his mom calls his buddy’s mom to tell her that her son said “fudge,” and the mom begins beating her son while Ralphie’s mom listens. In both cases, you don’t hear a swear word, but you KNOW that’s what they are saying.
  6. Provide the entire history of a word, its etymology which is its origins in Old Latin or wherever it came from. For example, there is a word in our language that is derived from the Old English word, “scite” meaning dung.  I’m thinking you can figure out the word.
  7. Synonyms are useful.

Feel free to add to our list if you have any fabulous strategies; I think he could use the help, and maybe the motivation too.

And the winner is . . . NOT YOU! Deal with it

I’ve spent this weekend like I spend a majority of my weekends, watching kids compete. This weekend I watched my Speech & Debate team competing Friday night and all day Saturday, and then on Sunday, I watched my own son compete in the final day of a hockey tournament.

When I got to the hockey tournament, all the other parents asked me how my debaters did.  Did we win? How many trophies?  That’s all anybody cared about.

Late Sunday afternoon as we drove home while the rest of the country watched two football teams compete, I listened to my husband ask for at least the hundredth time, “who the hell did the hockey schedule this year? Why was there a tournament TODAY?  It’s the SUPERBOWL!”  He banned all radio or access to anything that might give away clues as to the game’s outcome as he and my son had  recorded it and wanted to pretend to watch it in real time when we got home.  Despite the fact that he’s a devoted Cowboys fan, he wanted to watch the game, to see who won the season.

I did cheat on my husband’s rules a little bit as it is a five hour drive home, and I checked my twitter feed.  I found out that the commercials are great and some people found Madonna’s half time show tasteful and well done while others found it boring and lacking in Madonna swag. My verdict?   After finally watching halftime at ten o’clock last night, it was a little dull.  I also found out that I follow people on Twitter who cared about the game about as much as did . . . not much.

More than anything, I find it fascinating how obsessed our entire culture is with competition.  For many, winning really is everything. Even if you’re not into sports, the nation is currently obsessed with who is going to win the republican nomination.  Competition is virtually impossible to escape.

As a coach one of the most difficult skills I’ve had to coach kids on is not how to improve their speaking skills, but rather how to lose.  When they lose in real life, they don’t just get “another life” to start the game again like they do in their favorite video games.  They don’t have any idea how to lose despite living in a society which values competition almost more than anything else.  In some ways it’s unfair.  In many youth sports, the motto is “everyone plays” and a score is not kept.  I get that little guys should just play for the fun of it, but then we send them into a world where they compete, they lose, and they are expected to know how to deal with appropriately.

My team has come a long way on this front as have my own kids.  They know that if they need to pitch a fit after losing, they better do it off by themselves where nobody else sees it.    They know to congratulate the winner, hold their heads up, know they did their best, and no matter how painful, paste a smile on their face.  They need to show some class: no showboating if they win, no hysterics if they lose.

As a coach who hates losing as much as my team, I’ve had to learn to do this too.  It’s really hard.  Winning is much more fun, and it’s also what keeps us going.  We hear about businesses that fail or writers who got hundreds of rejections, but then we hear about that one business that some kid developed in his dorm room and is now worth billions or that one story that a woman wrote in a café with her infant son in a stroller and we think, “if they can do it, maybe I can just achieve a half of one percent of their success,” and we keep going.  Competition does that for us.  It drives us. Even though somebody has to lose, somebody also has to win.

While I’m not sure that turning everything into a competition is the best approach to life, I still want to win in the publishing game and the business game, and I’ll keep trying, holding my head up and pasting a smile on my face if I need to until I do achieve the levels of success I want.  I’ll get there someday, even if I lose a few times along the way.

And in case you’re wondering, my speech and debate team won eight trophies (six in speech and two in debate), and the hockey team went 2-2, placing third overall.  I’m guessing you know how the superbowl ended up.

What is your paradigm?

Have you ever been asked that question?  It’s an odd question but one that high school debaters regularly ask their judges before a debate round.  The first time a competitor asked me about my paradigm before a round, I had absolutely no idea what they were talking about.  “My paradigm?  Uhhh . . . ”  Apparently, that response gave them all the information they needed because they said, “never mind” and continued with the debate.

Now that I have coached Speech and Debate for several years and even attended “debate camp,” I know my paradigm.  It is this:  “One, be respectful of one another, two, speak so that I can understand what you are saying, and three make solid, clear arguments.”  In other words, if you are a condescending ass to your opponent, if you talk so fast that I can’t understand a word you are saying, or if your argumentation lacks any semblance of logic, you will lose points.  This is not unlike what I teach my own children, be nice and communicate clearly. I suppose it’s a “mom paradigm.”

After trying to judge rounds with kids attempting to speak like this student, I think my paradigm makes perfect sense.

I try to teach and coach my students that public speaking is all about clear communication.  Does your audience understand what you are saying? Are you persuading them effectively? Can they clearly follow your arguments? Is your logic sound? Is your presentation and delivery solid or do you speak too quickly or softly?  I want my students to learn to communicate with confidence and poise, to respect their audience even if that audience is an opponent in a debate round, to craft a message that others can understand, think about, and maybe even learn from.

Today, I am taking some students to Utah to compete against top debaters from all over the country.

In order for my students to compete, I have to judge rounds, and I also had to post my paradigm on a judging website, so top high school debaters could evaluate me as a judge.  After reading through some of the judges’ paradigms, one of my students was concerned with what I might post.  “Mrs. Isaman,” he said in all seriousness, “you cannot put ‘talk slow and be nice’ as your paradigm.”  He then proceeded to read from the site.  One judge listed his “Official Paradigm” as: “Phenomenology-influenced aesthetically-interpreting post-structural theorist with an applied transformative epistemological orientation.” Huh? Is this guy serious? Apparently he is.

At first I laughed, but my next response? Oh shit. I have to judge the kids that this guy coaches?!

My students spent an hour or two writing my judging paradigm to make it sound slightly more sophisticated than “be nice and talk slow.”  Hopefully the post-structuralist theorist coach read it, understood I value presentation as well as argumentation, and scratched me from his students’ judging pool.

If not, I hope these kids can either adapt their debate style for my “mom” paradigm or deal with a judge who has an anxiety attack in the middle of a round.  In any case, it should be an interesting few days.

Thinking teens exist . . . we are not doomed

I judged a round of Original Oratory yesterday morning at the National Forensics Tournament here in Dallas.  No, this is not a tournament as to who can fingerprint the fastest á la CSI but rather a tournament that brings together the best high school speakers and debaters across the country to compete in a variety of events.

The student competitors are an amazing group of young men and women.  (In fact, if you are ever feeling fearful for the future of our country, volunteer to judge next fall at a local Forensics/Speech and Debate Tournament.  I guarantee you will feel better about both this country’s youth and our future.)

In one round, I judged seven Original Oratories.  An Oratory is an original speech written by the speaker, hence the name “Original Oratory.”  Some students made me laugh . . . a lot, while others impressed me with their research or eloquent delivery, but most importantly, they each made me think.  The speeches are both persuasive and motivational in nature, and the best ones leave the listener feeling both inspired and questioning the status quo.

It’s amazing to listen to young men and women question our society and culture.  These kids get it.  They may not have the solutions to our problems, but they are far more aware of what’s going on than we, as a society, often give them credit for.  Their commentary on life is thought provoking and inspired.

One excellent speech addressed the one sided nature of sex education in our country.  In her health class she learned how to properly “install” a condom on a cucumber (really?!?) and knew all kinds of details about the physical mechanics of sex but the curriculum never addressed the emotional impact and consequences of being sexually active at a young age.  Hmmm . . . interesting, and, I would agree, a problem.

In another speech, a student talked about the self-esteem movement that has merely led to a generation of narcissists who consider themselves above average but have nothing to back that claim up.  As a teacher, I can’t say that I disagree with him.

A third speaker in that room tackled Yoda’s quote from Star Wars, “Do or do not.  There is no try,” and he discussed the value of realistic goal setting.

These are Juniors and Seniors in High School who have figured this stuff out early.  They get it. There’s more to sex than what we see in movies and on TV, false praise doesn’t lead to excellence but rather to narcissism, and we need to believe we can achieve realistic goals if we hope to do so.

As a writer this inspires me.  If a teenager can write something that really makes me think, then maybe I can too.  I won’t get there without hard work and some realistic goals, but at forty one, I already know this . . . right?