May 31, 2022 - News

John R. King students build confidence through debate

John R King students take turns debating topics in front of the whiteboard like "should Americans pay a flat tax rate?"
Student debaters take turns debating whether America should have a flat tax rate. From left to right: Nakelah Ellison, Kaybre Hein, Jerjuan Howard, Vernell Clark, Arizona Davis and Jaida Morgan. Photo: Samuel Robinson/Axios

Amid laughter, a fierce debate over equal taxation broke out at John R. King Academic and Performing Arts Academy last week.

  • But instead of a typical classroom back and forth, Vernell Clark, 12, glanced at a scribbled note card before properly persuading his debate team.

Why it matters: Called Umoja, this middle-school team has been debating twice a week since last fall.

  • Students debate topics like Tik Tok age restriction or grades for K-12 schools through the Lincoln-Douglas format.

What they're saying: "I see a lot of smart kids this age … who are shy or timid to speak," Jerjuan Howard, who founded the team last year as a Detroit Public Schools Community District academic interventionist, tells Axios. "Through debate, we want kids to overcome that and build confidence speaking in front of people."

Between the lines: Umoja is the Swahili word for "unity." While each class has winners and losers, students say the most important part of the team is that they treat each side with respect.

  • Learning how to cite sources and hearing out those who disagree are the most important lessons, says Kaybre Hein, 12, who tells Axios it's also improved her speech.
  • When they’re not debating, students practice pronunciation through exercises like saying "rubber, baby, bunny, bumper," three times fast.

What we're watching: The Umoja team has been applying for grants in hopes to turn the twice-a-week after school event into a free weekly summer program, Howard says.

  • That would include more funding for operational costs like snacks, which Howard and Jaida Morgan — who also works closely with the team and recently earned a masters degree in social work at Wayne State — have been footing since launching the program.
  • The school is also planning a competition with Gary Comer Middle School in Chicago. Eventually, they want to host students from Mary McLeod Butheme Elementary-Middle School and Paul Roberson Malcolm X Academy, Howard says.
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