Local speech and debate team helps middle school girls learn ‘the value of their voice’

The Rhyme and Reason speech and debate team
The Rhyme and Reason speech and debate team includes (top row) Ruby Adler, Solaine Bardin, Misa Uchiyama and Elena Grilli, and (bottom row) Sarah Lehman, Mira Lehman, Emma Weibel and Inji Hamdoun. Most of the members attend Muirlands Middle School in La Jolla.
(Dina Lim)

“A woman who speaks is a woman with power,” says Katya Azzam, who coaches the Rhyme and Reason speech and debate team of eight middle school students, most of whom attend Muirlands Middle School in La Jolla.

The all-girls team formed as a pod in June, and less than a year later, it’s gearing up to compete at state and national levels.

The team consists of Muirlands students Solaine Bardin, Elena Grilli, Sarah and Mira Lehman, Emma Weibel and Inji Hamdoun, along with Ruby Adler (who attends Francis Parker School of San Diego) and Misa Uchiyama (who attends Carmel Valley Middle School).

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When schools were closed at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic last spring, some of the eventual Rhyme and Reason members approached their parents about starting a speech and debate team to supplement their intellectual stimulation. The parents, in turn, reached out to Azzam, a San Diego State University communications major, and formed a small pod that would meet in members’ backyards, in masks and with chairs spaced apart.

“They are the most self-motivated, amazing girls I have ever seen,” Azzam said. “They had a watered-down version of speech and debate at school but wanted to learn more. I teach parliamentary debate, and they wanted to learn more and more from me, so I’m showing them college-level concepts. For eighth-graders to get it blows my mind.”

For example, the girls practice kritiks (often referred to as K), a form of argument in policy debate that challenges a certain mindset or assumption made by the opposing team. They also learn how to debate in topical arguments, write speeches, and spot and win over “lay judges.”

Because there aren’t many middle-school-level speech and debate teams, Rhyme and Reason competes against other clubs. And because all tournaments are held online, the team has competed against others from across the country.

“When you advance to the final round, they call it breaking,” Azzam said. “Every single girl broke and made it to the final round in the last competition. They are making a name for themselves.”

Inji said one of the best things that has come from being on the team has been the personal connection and opportunity for conversation at a time when the pandemic confined many people to their homes.

“It allowed us to become very close,” she said. “We work well together and we helped each other get through the difficult times when we couldn’t see each other or physically be in school together. We met to study, prepare for tournaments and just support each other. It’s been really nice, and that reliability and support is valuable even now when we have finally been able to go back to school in person.”

Emma agreed. “During COVID-19, I missed social interactions, and debate has been the highlight of my week,” she said. “I have had so much fun being able to learn to spread a message in a logical way, and now I see the whole world, from politics to school, in a completely different way.”

Several members said they appreciate the critical thinking skills that come from speech and debate methods.

It has helped “expand our horizon beyond our local area to the entire world,” Solaine said. “It has allowed us to open our eyes and ask questions about what is happening around us rather than stand by.”

Elena said “debate has pushed me to become more educated about the issues of today. We have learned to think critically about politics rather than buy into the polarization that we see in the media.”

Sarah said she used to be nervous about public speaking in school, “but now I love it. It gives us a sense of empowerment and improves our understanding of the world around us and what we are passionate about.”

“Being on a team is amazing,” Ruby said. “We have teammates supporting us; if one of us wins, it feels like a win for all of us.”

Rhyme and Reason will be in a state competition the last week of May and a national tournament the first week of June.

Win or lose, participating in speech and debate has advantages later in life — especially for girls, Azzam said.

“I think so many times in our society, although we have progressed in so many ways, women are silenced in different areas,” she said. “Teaching a girl the value of their voice teaches her to ask for things, bridge the gap and push for more. Learning those levels of persuasion allows them to stand out and push forward.” ◆