Amisha Mody Mehta

By Nicole Perrino

And the snow must go on…

While it wasn’t the greatest news when New York City’s Department of Education announced that snow days would be a thing of the past, thanks to online learning, the ability to go remote can be positive. That was true with Saturday’s Middle School Quality Initiative debate tournament. While the Omicron variant had already forced the tournament to go remote, the original plan was for students to participate from their school buildings. But the snowstorm forced students to debate from their homes, which presented some challenges — but none that they couldn’t handle.

The New York City Urban Debate League (NYCUDL) is designed to serve historically underserved communities, creating equitable access to academic debate opportunities. We talked to co-executive director Amisha Mody Mehta about Saturday’s tournament and learn a little more about the league. Edited excerpts:

So glad that both Covid-19 and the snow didn’t stop Saturday’s debate from taking place. Did you face any challenges?

AMM: We worked with the Middle School Quality Initiative (MSQI) to help schools make sure students had devices and would be able to navigate the tournament without a teacher next to them. We conducted tech checks all week. Some students didn’t have reliable internet, so we worked with students to find ways to make it work. In some cases, one student called a partner and the partner put the phone next to the computer so the students whose turn it was could give their speech. A tournament has many moving parts and everything needs to be coordinated. We were worried that with the high winds and distraction of the snow, we’d lose people throughout the day, but the kids were amazing and powered through the whole day!  We are so proud of them!

The debate relied on the mics on your device. In one case, a student put the phone next to a computer to give a speech with a partner.

In 2011 there were less than 10 schools with debate teams. Now there are 163 thanks to NYCUDL’s efforts. Can you share a little about the work that went into making this happen?

AMM: Often people think if the kids just had tournaments they could attend, they would be able to debate, but there is so much more to it. We create detailed lesson plans for our coaches, provide extensive support to get schools registered and we run our tournaments with a prioritization of access and education over competition. We have also been fortunate to partner with the Middle School Quality Initiative, Schools Districts 7, 9 and 16 [first two in the Bronx, latter in Brooklyn] who have worked with us to create many debate programs at once.

How can students who are interested in learning more about debate teams or joining your league find out more information?

AMM: If a student is interested in debate, we encourage them to have their school administration contact us at info@debate.nyc and we can work with them to set up a program in their school.  We will give them topic materials, train and support their coach with access to our Google Classroom and weekly professional learning opportunities and of course we host the monthly tournaments.  We love creating debate opportunities in new schools so we can bring debate to even more students!

Learn more about The New York City Urban Debate League here

Nicole Perrino is the founder of Bronxmama.com, a hyperlocal website for Bronx families where she use her influence to celebrate the beauty that the Bronx has to offer. In addition to her role at Bronxmama,...

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