By Kathy Chouteau
In February, local nonprofit The Practice Space partnered with the El Cerrito High School Speech and Debate Team to host the Berman Speech Invitational, an online speech and debate tournament featuring middle and high school students from 20 schools throughout the Bay Area—the majority of which were from the West Contra Costa Unified School District (WCCUSD).
About 70 to 80 students ranging from ages 12 to 18 participated, along with 30 to 40 judges, according to AnnMarie Baines, PhD., executive director of The Practice Space who served as the invitational’s tournament director. WCCUSD participants originated from schools including El Cerrito High School, Kennedy High School, Pinole High School and Korematsu Middle School. Schools outside of the local district included Analy High School in Sebastopol, American Canyon High School and a few others.
For its part, The Practice Space had a hand in helping all of the participating WCCUSD schools prepare for the tournament in one way or another, with special emphasis on El Cerrito and Kennedy, which they met with regularly via virtual workshops and practice sessions. “The practice space is all about being able to elevate underrepresented voices by building confident communication skills like storytelling, debate, presentation—all of it,” said Baines about the organization’s efforts.
At the Berman Speech Invitational—which is named in honor of Catherine and Sanford Berman, who founded the El Cerrito team—there were “a lot of different options for students to compete in,” per Baines. Comparing it to a swimming meet, she said the competitions ranged from poetry slam, where students presented their own original poem, to SPAR, which is many debates, to issues speech, where they persuaded an audience about an issue, and also acting. For the acting category, students acted out a piece and portrayed a character from a play, memoir, book, etc. in 10 minutes without props or costumes, according to Baines.
“Students had topics about voter suppression and quarantine pet adoption, Britney Spears’ conservatorship [and] the Black Lives Matter Movement,” said Baines, naming a few examples from the invitational.
By the end of the competition, Baines’ students from the WCCUSD had racked up some impressive accomplishments, placing in several events. They included: Sheila McKinney, Pinole Valley High School, first place in Poetry Slam; Joi Gonzales, Pinole Valley High School, first place in SPAR Debate; Rosalie Zuckermann, El Cerrito High School, first place in Impromptu Speaking; Milo Campbell, El Cerrito High School, first place in Oratorical Interpretation; Gloria Zearett, El Cerrito High School, first place in Original Oratory; and Will Flowers, El Cerrito High School, second place in Poetry Slam. (Pinole Valley High School is coached by teacher Michele Lamons-Raiford, with guest workshops from The Practice Space.)
Beyond the more obvious rewards for students working with The Practice Space and competing in the invitational—i.e., the awards and improved public speaking skills—there are other meaningful takeaways too, particularly during the pandemic.
“It’s been quite an experience with distance learning, but we’re heartened to have served more students during the pandemic than in all our other years combined. So many students are struggling to feel heard and connect with others and I’ve heard from many of them that these online speech practices and events make them feel less alone,” said Baines.
“I find that during the pandemic, doing speech and debate online is good for content and skills, but it’s also even more important around the relationship of community building that students can just have a predictable space and time where they can talk about what is important to them,” she said, adding that it helps them “express their identity.”
According to Ian Bader, Kennedy High School Debate Club teacher/sponsor, Debate Club is “the only time during distance learning that I’ve seen our students interacting in the ways they did before the pandemic.”
When the nonprofit isn’t partnering on speech invitationals, The Practice Space’s team of six works with people ranging in age from seven to 75 on activities like online summer camps for kids, an Educator Workshop for teachers, interview prep and debate classes for adults and more.
The Practice Space is located on the El Cerrito-Richmond border. Learn more about the organization here or call (510) 708-0535.