AHS Debater Captures First Place in Big Questions at National Debate Competition

Rising senior Isobel Maksoudian brought a successful Arlington High School Speech and Debate Team year to a rousing end with her first place win in Big Questions debate at the  NSDA 2023 National Speech and Debate Tournament in Phoenix, Arizona on June 16. A Team member since her freshman year, Isobel had her first Big Questions (BQ) experience as a sophomore when the Team hosted a small in-club tournament. She and a friend competed together and ended up winning the tournament! The next time she competed in BQ was at the New England District Tournament this year, where she qualified for the national contest. 

As Isobel describes it, “My past experience in Lincoln-Douglas debate (a debate style traditionally revolving around moral philosophies) lent itself nicely to my participation in BQ debates, as the resolutions often address science and philosophy.” BQ debates last for about 40 minutes and follow this format:

  • Constructive speeches, where the debaters read their cases, 5 minutes
  • Question segments, 3 minutes
  • Rebuttal speeches, 4 minutes
  • More questions, 3 minutes
  • Consolidation speeches, a summary of the round, 3 minutes
  • Rationale speeches, emphasizing a few key points, 3 minutes

At the Nationals, each debater competed individually. Isobel and two AHS teammates, Clara Schneiderand Amethyst Stencik began competition with three preliminary rounds. Resolved: humans are primarily driven by self-interest was the topic being debated throughout the tournament. Beginning after the second round, the debaters were “power-matched” so that each was competing against people with similar win records. The preliminary rounds took place over two days, and by the end the debaters had no idea how many wins or losses they had. It took four wins out of six to move on to the elimination rounds.

Isobel was chosen to move forward and she describes the experience this way: “I was ecstatic when I learned that I’d qualified! Over the course of my preliminary rounds, I debated people from Minnesota, Colorado, Utah, California, and even Canada. It was incredible to hear the perspectives, and learn from the debating styles, of competitors from across North America.”

While the preliminary rounds were adjudicated by one judge, the elimination rounds had three judges involved up to the semis, which had five judges. Nine judges adjudicated the final round. As each debate ended, the judges shared how they voted and the winner moved on. Isobel had placed so high in the preliminary rounds she automatically moved past the first round of eliminations! She captured the two elimination rounds she took part in, and then notes, “ It was a shock to move onto the semis, and even more surprising to learn that I was one of two competitors in the entire New England region to advance that far in the entire national tournament. After 10 rounds of debate, and a 5-0 win in my semifinals round, I moved onto the final BQ round.”

In the final round, Isobel was on the negative side of the resolution and her opponent was on the affirmative. She describes the finals this way:   “I read the same negative case I had been reading during my previous rounds (with some edits that I made throughout the tournament). The final competition was different from any debate round I’d ever had before, with many more judges and spectators. It was an incredible experience!”

Isobel believes that the guidance of Coach Donald Broussard, whose involvement with the AHS Team was funded by an Innovations in Education Grant from the Arlington Education Foundation, made it possible for her and the others to make it to the national tournament. Throughout the year he worked hard to help the students register for tournaments and to qualify as many students as possible. Coach B held Zoom calls with all the qualifying competitors every Monday, going over the general schedule of the tournament, sharing information about the field of debaters the students would be facing, and advising them on how to use the time between calls wisely. He shared evidence files and topic briefs that were useful when revising the debate cases and creating blocks, the pre-written arguments that respond to anticipated case rebuttals. His experience as a former competitor was “...invaluable…” when planning the trip to Nationals.

Isobel is returning to the AHS Speech and Debate Team as a senior captain next year, and she believes that being part of the team is “...by far the best decision I’ve made throughout my high school career.”  Benefits of participation include honing critical thinking skills, becoming a comfortable public speaker, learning new things, and finding friends across New England. Isobel notes that being able to articulate your thoughts effectively is “...one of the most (if not the most) important abilities you can have..” and that students who take part in debate are ahead in terms of mastering this skill. They also tend to have minds open to new perspectives. She adds “While arguing both sides of various resolutions, learning about new experiences and worldviews in the process, I’ve become a more empathetic and considerate person.”

In closing, Isobel has this to say:  One of the most valuable lessons I’ve learned through my participation in speech and debate is the importance of communication. Communication is the driver of progress, and all perspectives have value in our discussions. While it can be incredibly difficult to initiate hard conversations, or speak out in support of something you believe in, enacting change isn’t always an easy process. Through any adversity, remembering that your voice matters is integral to success.”

Congratulations Isobel!