Social work student creates debate program for high-achieving middle school students

by Amy Whitesall, Published April 18, 2012

Eastern Michigan social work senior Autumn Harris has learned that good things happen when you take a chance.

Autumn Harris

Autumn Harris talks with student in STARS program

Harris, 27, wins concert tickets, trips, VIP perks. (If you're that person who never wins anything, she's that other person.)  In 2008, while she and her husband were on vacation in California, they spent the night in line for tickets to be on The Price is Right. Harris was the first one called to "Come on down!" She won a flat screen TV and a living room set.

"I'm always into everything; I guess it's just my personality," she said "Anybody who knows me knows I'm just so lucky."

So when a friend in Farmington mentioned that the school district's Together for Accelerated Learners group was interested in creating a debate program for high-achieving middle schoolers, Harris - who had no experience with formal debate - didn't hesitate.

She jumped in and created the five-week STARS Middle School Debate Program, which introduced 46 middle school students to debate and culminated in a Dec. 17 final debate at the EMU Student Center.

The program was so well-received that she's now putting together 5- and 8- week spring programs for about 150 students in the Detroit and Farmington school districts.

"Debate teaches them critical thinking skills; they learn how to think on their feet," she said. "...Even over those five weeks - that short time - I was able to see the difference with their thinking processes and the effort they put into it."

Harris, whose high school didn't offer debate, says she dug in and did a lot of reading and research to build the program. And then she learned along with the kids and the other coaches. She and three other coaches met once a week with seventh- and eight-graders from three middle schools - two in Farmington and one in Detroit. They taught the steps of debate, helped the students with their research, arranged for them to meet with experts representing opposing sides of their chosen issues. One group divided over animal research, the other debated the benefits and drawbacks of banning peanut butter in schools.

"When the program first started they were all a little nervous about speaking in front of a crowd, said coach Orlando Harris (no relation to Autumn), a Colorado Technical University student from the Detroit area. "By the time it was done, with the way they were presenting  the information, they were (converting) some of the parents... In one word, it's confidence."

Autumn Harris recalled one young man in particular, the class clown in her group at the beginning of the program. She started working with him one-on-one during the coaching sessions, and by the time he'd finished his research, he was like a different kid.

"His whole persona changed," Harris said. "Our focus was on being professional - this is how you speak, this is how you stand. I started to see the change in his body language, in the way he spoke, the way he organized his speech. He was like a young professional man."

Harris found her way to social work after dabbling in more clinical majors - nursing, respiratory therapy, radiology. She says she's always been interested in the workings of the mind, and creating the debate program spoke to that interest. But the emotional investment didn't fully hit her until one of the mock debates, when she realized how far her students had come.

"I broke down and started crying during one of those mock debates," she said. "I told them, 'Just watching you guys grow meant so much to me.' I felt like I was making a difference in these young children's lives."



Geoff Larcom


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