For 117 years, the final round of the Minnesota high school debate tournament had never featured competitors from the same school.
That is until January, when Washburn High School sent two duos to the finals.
Washburn senior captains Grace Klage and Alex Dresdner faced fellow senior captains Lily Endo and Luke Peichel in the championship round, after each pair went 8-0 in their preceding debates. The team asked the judges to award Klage and Dresdner first place in the final round, noting the duo’s dedication to debate and Klage’s finishing in second the previous two years.
“Grace and Alex usually spent a substantial amount more time in debate and just in debate-related things than Luke and I,” Endo said. “… I think you can’t participate in debate at our level without kind of committing a very larger portion of your life to it, but Alex and Grace go even more than that.”
It’s a dedication that stretches back to middle school for all four of the Washburn captains. Dresdner, Endo and Peichel each joined the debate team at Clara Barton Open School, while Klage joined at Anthony Middle School. The four joined the Washburn team as freshmen, and three of them made state as sophomores.
Last year, Klage and Dresdner made the state finals, while Endo and Peichel made the semifinals. The duos said they expected to be able to share the title this year but that state rules required them to debate. Klage said the final round was more symbolic than serious, with the captains enjoying the moment.
“It was all very good natured and fun,” Endo said.
All seven judges scored the final round in Klage’s and Dresdner’s favor.
‘Part of a community’
Dresdner said she joined the Barton team at the insistence of Endo, admitting that she didn’t exactly enjoy the activity at first. Endo said she didn’t really like it either but that she joined because her parents noticed how she liked to argue with them.
“I couldn’t argue with them, because I would prove their point,” she said.
She, Dresdner, Peichel and Klage competed with and against each other in middle school before joining Washburn’s team as freshmen. The team had some upperclassmen when they first joined but was comprised of just the four of them by the start of their junior year. They’ve since helped build it back up to a team of about 22, emphasizing the idea of building community in the process.
“We all get along really well and when we aren’t debating, we’re almost always joking around about debate … and having a lot of fun,” Peichel wrote in an email. “Everyone is also incredibly supportive of each other.”
Nowadays, about the half of the team members are novices, or first-year debaters. The four captains have also helped to build debate at the middle school level, mentoring younger debaters, both as coaches and as judges in competitions.
“They get what it means to be part of a community,” said Jake Swede, program director for the Minnesota Urban Debate League, which is comprised of teams from Minneapolis and St. Paul, including Washburn. “They get that they’re going to leave at some point and that the institution is going to remain.”
‘It just clicks’
That’s not to say the four don’t take their own debates seriously.
Social studies teacher and debate team advisor Mary Dierkes estimated that the captains probably spend 10 to 15 hours outside of practices preparing in the week before a tournament. That’s in addition to the approximately four to six hours they spend at practice each week.
All four captains have spent time honing their skills at summer camps and through participating in regional and national tournaments. They’ve also spent hours preparing their arguments and research for the high school season. Klage and Dresdner even take a debate class at the University of Minnesota.
The captains said they’ve seen themselves improve over the years, though added that it hasn’t always seemed consistent.
“Debate is weird in that you don’t feel like you’re getting any better for months on end,” Klage said. “You’re constantly developing and honing your skills, and all of a sudden, it just clicks.”
Washburn participates in what’s known as policy debate, the oldest of four debate divisions offered in Minnesota. All of the policy debates focus around one broader topic, which this year was education reform. Each team prepares to argue for a policy or idea within the broader topic but also prepares to argue against other teams’ arguments. That means participants need to be well-versed in all areas of the broader topic.
The activity involves a lot of teamwork with one’s partner, Endo said, noting that she and Peichel have focused on that synergy. “If you diverge from what your partner is saying, it becomes a lot harder for the judge to follow along with you,” she said.
She and Peichel built their affirmative argument this year around the topic of school resource officers and efforts to remove them from schools. Klage and Dresdner advocated in their affirmative argument for expanding Title IX to explicitly include gender identity and sexual orientation.
Endo and Peichel attended school board and political-organizing meetings in preparing their argument. Endo said that’s allowed them to form better connections with local communities, which she said was empowering.
“As a team, we’re really able to kind of identify issues that our communities face and really become more informed and engage in that how we see fit,” Dresdner said. “… There’s a lot of different ways that you can take what you’ve learned in debate and apply it to real life.”
‘Something you can’t teach’
Dierkes said she’s seen the captains’ confidence grow in her two seasons as team advisor. She noted how much time they put into the activity and praised them for keeping younger team members engaged.
“I think one of the strengths of our team is that our captains really look to make sure everybody is involved,” she said. “Team culture is very strong and important on this team. I think we value that a lot.”
With state over, the four captains are preparing for national tournaments that will cap their high school careers. Endo and Peichel qualified for the National Association of Urban Debate League tournament in Washington D.C., while Klage and Dresdner qualified for the Tournament of Champions in Kentucky.
“That’s pretty widely known as the highest-level tournament in policy debate,” Endo said.
All four captains appeared appreciative of the skills debate taught them. Swede, of the Urban Debate League, noted their work ethic, preparation and structure in preparing their arguments for this year’s competition.
“The kids and the coaches obviously were very intentional about doing the right research and putting it together in a coherent way,” he said. “They’ve very serious and driven. That’s something you can’t teach.”