Byron Nelson students grade presidential debate tactics for national poll
Byron Nelson students grade presidential debate tactics for national poll
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Byron Nelson senior Sarah Smith listens to the third presidential debate

Millions of viewers watched the third and final 2016 presidential debate with close eyes on the content of the messages presented by the candidates and whether those messages aligned with their views. For a group of Byron Nelson High School students, however, the most intriguing aspect of the debate was how effectively the candidates argued their points.

Students in Carla Reisman’s speech and debate classes took part in a watch party for the debate, and they also provided their views of the candidates’ arguments to the National Speech and Debate Association’s poll. A limited number of schools across the United States participated in the association’s watch parties for each debate – about 10 per event – but about 1,000 students took part in its online poll grading presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump’s effectiveness.

The day after the debates, Mrs. Reisman’s speech and debate classes then discussed why they think a candidate more effectively argued his or her position.

“It’s really fun, because a lot of the kids will say stuff like, ‘Oh, if I tried to say that a judge would knock off points,’” said Mrs. Reisman, referring to the extracurricular debates students take part in during UIL academic contests. “They get really into it. It’s also interesting because they have to look at both sides of an argument, so they’re always thinking of how they would effectively support or counter a certain side.”

During the debate, several moments left students in uproarious laughter when a candidate would take a jab at his or her counterpart – partly because of the insult, and partly because they know they could never get away with such tactics in their own debates.

Overall, the students thought Hillary Clinton was the more effective debater for the majority of topics (an opinion supported by the majority of students in NSDA’s national poll), but they also felt Donald Trump exhibited passion for his arguments. Some of the reasons Mrs. Clinton was more effective, they said, were that she exhibited better composure vocally and used effective hand gestures.


 
“It’s also interesting [to see students monitoring the debate] because they have to look at both sides of an argument, so they’re always thinking of how they would effectively support or counter a certain side.”
 
CARLA REISMAN, BYRON NELSON DEBATE COACH
 

For the most part, however, the key points in her arguments were better explained, the students agreed.

“Hillary did a good job advocating for women better – it wasn’t about being a woman, it was about having a specific plan she listed to support women,” said senior Brian Dickie, the historian on the debate team whose parents hosted the watch party. “She also hammered home her political background. She gave examples of specific situations where she was on the ground and Trump was on ‘The Apprentice,’ which made a strong point.”

Hats decorated with the Republican elephant and Democratic donkey made the debate-night setting more festive, but most students were more interested in the event’s insult-laced moments. Guests munched on snacks, but most of the time was spent laughing or jeering instances they knew represented bad debate technique.

Some tactics used frequently throughout the debate would result in hefty point deductions in a UIL contest, Mrs. Reisman said, such as interrupting, not respecting time limits and lacking specific proof to support claims.

As for what the students felt about the structure of the debate itself, they agreed that they both candidates had trouble effectively arguing the questions asked of them during several moments.

“Hillary dodged a lot of questions with long-winded answers,” said senior Sarah Smith, the debate team’s vice president. “Sometimes the moderator would ask legitimate questions about her past and she would just go around it and become repetitive in the points she tried to hit home.”

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