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Teen Debaters Parse Candidates' Style And Substance
The high school debaters at the Bay Area Urban Debate League get together every week in downtown Oakland, Calif., to hone their arguments and debating styles. But the young debaters have had a chance during the recent presidential debates to see how it's done on the national stage.
They watch with pen and worksheet, taking notes and analyzing the candidates' debating styles, hoping to glean some lessons from the pros.
There is a lot for these young debaters to observe and compare, but they have also noticed some key differences.
The biggest difference between teen debaters and candidates is how one wins the debate. In high school policy debates, teens argue over current topics such as education and transportation, and a judge decides a clear winner at the end based on a formula of evidence, presentation and arguments made by each side.
In presidential debates, it's a lot harder to say who wins, says 17-year-old Sarafina Padilla.
"The judge tells you if you won or lost based on points," Padilla says. "In a presidential debate it's all critics saying their perspective and stuff. We just do the debate, we get a grade, and a prize then."
Another key difference is that debaters actually have to prove what they're saying in a youth policy debate, which is not necessarily true for the candidates.
Robin Bonner, who helps run the class, says she was disturbed by the lack of facts the candidates gave in previous debates. She says teen debaters have to meet a higher bar in their arguments than the guys sparring for the Oval Office.
"Ours actually has to have a plan, has to have solvency, impacts. ... What's going to happen to this population? What's going to happen to this budget?" Bonner says of her students. "It's more thought out in a real way."
The whole business of presidential debates is also more chaotic than what they're used to, says 17-year-old Elisa Saavedra.
"The way the presidential debates go is a lot messier than the way we do debates here," Saavedra says. "They do a lot more non-respectful yelling at each other. ... I guess that's the way they think they should do it, but it doesn't really look good to just overpower someone because when it comes down to it, it's not really who can yell loudest or who can talk more; it's about who can get the issues solved."
Of course, solving a national issue in a two-minute window is tough. Teen policy debaters get seven minutes to present their solutions.
The audio for this story was produced by Youth Radio.
MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
Tonight, President Obama and Mitt Romney face off for the third and final presidential debate. While millions of Americans will be watching closely, we're going to focus now on one group in Oakland, California that's sure to be taking notes, the Bay Area Urban Debate League. It's an afterschool program for high school students. As Youth Radio's Ashley Williams reports, the young debaters are studying the candidates hoping to learn lessons from the pros.
ROBIN BONNER: Whatever you know about the presidential election, I want you to say it, okay? All right, you all ready? All right.
ASHLEY WILLIAMS, BYLINE: About a dozen debaters warming up, free-associating and thinking on their feet.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN 1: Obamacare.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN 2: One percent.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN 2: Abortion.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN 3: PBS.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN 4: Occupy.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN 5: Swing voters.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN 6: 99 percent.
WILLIAMS: This is how you get pumped up to watch a presidential debate.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN 7: Marriage equality.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN 8: Debate.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN 9: 47 percent.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN 3: Wall Street.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN 10: Workers, argument, tax cuts.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN 11: Oppression.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN 12: Wait, it's my turn?
WILLIAMS: It's not their turn tonight. Tonight, they're watching the pros with pen and worksheet.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN 13: So bigger boxes (unintelligible) take short notes. So basically, it's a way to help, like, critique and like, analyze the presidential debate.
WILLIAMS: And there's plenty to say midway through.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN 4: What do you all think? Go ahead.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN 14: On this (unintelligible).
WILLIAMS: There is lots to observe and compare. The biggest difference between teen debaters and candidates, how one wins the debate. In high school policy debates, teens argue over current topics like education and transportation. A judge decides a clear winner at the end based on a formula of evidence, presentation and arguments.
But presidential debates, it's harder to say. Sarafina Padilla is 17 years old.
SARAFINA PADILLA: The judge tells you if you won or not. And then, they add up your points. In a presidential debate, it's all critics telling, like, their perspective.
WILLIAMS: Another difference, you have to prove what you're saying in a youth policy debate, which is not necessarily true for the candidates. Robin Bonner, who you heard leading the exercise earlier, helps run the class and was a little disturbed by the lack of facts the candidates gave. Teen debaters have to meet a higher bar in their arguments.
BONNER: Ours actually has to have a plan, has to have solvency, impacts. What's going to happen to this population? What's going to happen to this budget? And it's more thought out in a more real way.
WILLIAMS: 17-year-old Elisa Saavedra says the whole business of presidential debates is more chaotic than what they're used to.
ELISA SAAVEDRA: The way the presidential debates go it's really messier — it's a lot messier than the way the debates we do here are.
CANDY CROWLEY: I got to - I got to actually - I need to have you both - I understand the stakes here. I understand both of you, but I will get run out of town if I don't...
SAAVEDRA: They do a lot more of, like, non-respectful like talking over each other and yelling at times.
MITT ROMNEY: And they can put their introductions and credits...
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: (Unintelligible)
CROWLEY: We're keeping track, I promise.
SAAVEDRA: I guess that's the way they think that they should do it, but it doesn't really look good to just overpower someone because when it comes down to it, it's not really who can yell loudest or who talked more, it's about who can actually get the issues, like, solved.
WILLIAMS: But it's hard to solve a national issue in a two-minute window. At least teen policy debaters get seven. For NPR News, I'm Ashley Williams. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.