Dr. Jon Vogels and CA Senior Owen Tilman at the 2022 National Speech & Debate Tournament.
Dr. Jon Vogels and CA Senior Owen Tilman at the 2022 National Speech & Debate Tournament

CA Speech & Debate fuels growth, success

Over the summer of 2022, Colorado Academy rising Senior Owen Tilman helped put CA on the map in the world of Speech & Debate. His Lincoln-Douglas performance at the National Speech & Debate Tournament in Louisville, Ky., earned him second place for speaker points—plus an enormous trophy—out of 264 top debaters from across the country.

Owen’s pathway to the Nationals included a semi-final appearance at the Cal State Long Beach tournament and winning the Cal State Fullerton tournament. He then went on to be the only undefeated student at the Colorado District 2 National Qualifying Tournament last April, where he competed against 18 strong debaters. Only the top two students advanced.

“I was proud to champion the tournament and have the opportunity to compete among the other national qualifiers,” Owen says. But he earned his rightful spot through hours of intense research, evidence accumulation, crafting arguments for both sides, lines of questioning, and, according to him, “big, late-night brainstorms.”

Beyond his impressive performance at Nationals, a top takeaway for Owen was the energy and fellowship from the shared experience.

“The competition itself was an absolute blast, since I had the opportunity to meet dozens of like-minded debaters from across the country and celebrate the nerdiness of the activity together,” he says. “During competition, I had always felt that it would be impossible to forge relationships with other debaters—seeing that we’d likely be going up against each other as competitors in any given round. But the tournament gave me a chance to feel a sense of camaraderie, and treat the activity as more educational than competitive.” 

Owen, who is passionate about law and politics, sees a direct relationship between Speech & Debate and his goals for the future. “This activity has helped me improve my argumentative and thinking skills, while instilling an even greater work ethic and attention to detail,” he says.

Speech & Debate at CA

The Colorado Academy Speech & Debate program has been expanding in scope and participation since its inception in the 2020-2021 school year, when it was largely virtual.

According to former CA Upper School Principal Dr. Jon Vogels, who spearheaded the launch, it is great to see competition in person.

“After two years of hybrid and mostly online tournaments, I’m very excited that everything will be fully in person this year,” he says. “The energy of having hundreds of students in one place all competing in various events makes this activity even more fun and energizing and allows for interaction amongst students from schools all over the state.”

The growth of the Speech & Debate Society—the Upper School club—has doubled since its inception. The club meets on C Days at 2:45 p.m., and Vogels says students can choose to participate in events and competitions or just come and be a part of the meeting activities.

Last year, Speech & Debate ramped up in significant ways. The program was given a dedicated, permanent home in the new Leach Center for the Performing Arts, and a second faculty member—debate ace Randall Martínez—was added to the team. As CA’s first Director of Debate, Martínez brings superior credentials to the program. He has coached debate for more than 20 years, including as the assistant debate coach at the University of Miami.

“We are so lucky to have Randall,” says Vogels. “We hired him to teach history, but his extensive background in debate was a huge added bonus. From the start of last year, he has brought his experience and enthusiasm to Colorado Academy, and our debaters in particular have really grown as a result. He also really knows the national Speech & Debate scene, so he has helped me learn a lot about what is happening around the country, and I have helped him understand the specific landscape in Colorado.”

For his part, Martínez is excited to see the momentum the program is gaining. 

“For such a small school in terms of student size, we are making a name for ourselves within the debate landscape quickly,” Martínez says. “Owen’s second-place finish at Nationals and winning Districts without dropping a ballot is remarkable. But we’re also expanding into other events with dominance. We have become the team to beat in Lincoln-Douglas and World Schools formats throughout Colorado.” 

Indeed, CA had another impressive success story when Helaina Korneffel, Sydney Leach, Caroline Owen, Jessica Zinn, and Graham Neely competed in last year’s World Schools Debate. This team went undefeated in regional competition and even put CA on the international debate landscape with a winning record in the Prague Spring tournament.

2021-2022 CA Speech & Debate students and faculty

Speech & Debate in the curriculum

Both speech and debate have found homes as electives in the English and Social Studies departments, respectively, as the CA Upper School has integrated Speech & Debate into its curriculum. 

The new speech elective is called Rhetoric, and it focuses on the study of persuasive speech-making and writing. Students review famous examples of effective speeches of the past, study Aristotle’s theories about logos, pathos, and ethos, and spend time crafting and performing their own speeches.

Debate will have a course offered each trimester, each offering a different debating format.

  • Trimester 1: The Debate: Modern Technology and Warfare course will start the policy debate format. According to Martínez, this is the oldest debate format in the United States, and it will allow CA to compete head-to-head with Kent Denver.
  • Trimester 2: CA will expand the Public Forum debate format and allow students to use class time to prepare for competition and earn course credit for their work.
  • Trimester 3 will expand the World Schools debate format and compete internationally both in person and online. Students will also work to create partnerships with international programs.

In addition to the Upper School courses offered, Martínez is looking to expand the program into CA’s Middle School. In an exciting development, CA, partnering with the International School of Denver, will host a Middle School Speech & Debate competition in Denver this October. Students will have a chance to compete in several different formats—Public Forum debate, Original Oratory, Informative Speaking, and Interpretation of Literature. So far, 10 schools have signed up to participate, including Kent, Kunsmiller Creative Arts, International School of Denver, and DSST.

The other big initiative for the year is activating travel to compete in tournaments. “We are hopefully returning to some normalcy this year with tournament opportunities regionally, nationally, and internationally,” Martínez says. “At the end of Trimester 1, we are planning on making our first team travel trip to Dallas for the Ed Long Invitational at Hockaday School. In Trimester 2, we hope to attend the Cal Berkeley Invitational. And in Trimester 3, we’re looking to attend the Prague Spring tournament. It’s very exciting to provide students with these experiential learning opportunities.” 

Club growth

As the Speech & Debate Society leader this year, Owen has goals.

“Expand, expand, expand! The more people we can get interested in Speech & Debate, the better,” he says. “I’d like us to increase our in-house practice, to simulate more of an actual team environment. This will help build up both our competitiveness as a team and sense of interdependence as peers on the S&D journey together.”

Senior Clare Henry agrees, “My hopes for the program this year are that we continue to grow as a club and that we have a bunch of people who are super passionate about what we do in Speech & Debate.” 

Team members emphasize the long-term value of skills honed during the activity: “Above all,” Owen says, “Speech & Debate gives its participants the ability to improve their communication and critical thinking—skills that will serve them well, irrespective of the field they ultimately pursue.”