About 1,500 top public speakers will converge on Enochs High this weekend for the California High School Speech Association tournament, the first time Modesto will play host.
Enochs will have about 25 members of its team competing, said coach and event host Zack Kopecki. Team members from Modesto High and Gregori in Modesto, Delta Charter in Tracy and Turlock High also will be in the mix, he said.
He hopes the competitors will keep practicing through spring break, which began Friday for most schools. Preparation calms the nerves, but Kopecki said that having reached this level, teens know how to perform under stress.
“A lot of kids, by this point, don’t let their nerves show. They’re like the proverbial duck with the feet going a mile a minute under the surface,” he said Thursday.
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For all those nervous high-schoolers, Ceres fourth-graders who judged Walter White Elementary School debates had some words of encouragement and advice:
• Don’t try to bribe the judges with extra cookies, warned Xiana Garza.
• “Don’t be shy,” Annamaria Padilla said, very softly.
• “You have to electrify the audience,” urged Salvador Avalos with gusto.
• Don’t give up if you hit a block, said Valerie Torres, “If you get dead air, you can take a deep breath and start over.”
• Stay on topic. Maintain eye contact. Project your voice, ticked off Aaniyah Stallworth.
• “If they’re sitting (off stage), they don’t need to be goofing off and talking,” declared a stern Cassandra Harper.
The 10- and 11-year-olds in Jill Purdy’s class know all this from their judges training, which included a practice debate over the merits of chocolate milk vs. plain milk. Purdy took advantage of the fifth- and sixth-grade debates last month to weave in lessons on evaluating source material, arguing with respect and taking quick notes.
That last was critical, noted Kassandra Carranza. If you just sit and watch, your score sheet will have empty spots, “then you’re in big trouble,” she said.
“It’s tough to be a judge – all you do is listen and write,” Erick Razo said.
Having fourth-grade judges was a leap of faith this first year, Purdy said, but their experience as debate evaluators will pay off when they take the stage as fifth- and sixth-graders.
One day, they may make it to state-level speech or debate contests. Enochs coach Kopecki would urge them to try.
“Competitive speech and debate lays the foundations for the types of fundamentals to be successful in life. They learn to communicate and think on their feet. They have to articulate an argument and prove that claim,” he said. Learning to show respect to authority figures such as judges and interacting with rivals, as well as teammates, all teach kids lessons they can use everywhere, Kopecki said.
“If you boil it down, success comes down to three things. Some of it is talent,” that charisma and focus some kids start with, he said.
“The second would be hard work,” memorizing speeches and gathering evidence, he continued.
“The third thing is content,” Kopecki said, and a little fun.
In the end, he said, “An audience wants to be entertained.”