As a library volunteer who works with elementary school students, Catherine Tong knows young people can have big opinions.
“Kids are very strong critical thinkers,” says the University of California, Berkeley, sophomore. “They’re natural at questioning the status quo.” Yet Tong says not many spaces exist for children to participate in conversations about social justice.
In 2019, as a high school junior, Tong approached San José (Calif.) Public Library (SJPL) staffers with a programming idea to teach kids about a variety of social issues and, at the same time, hone their public speaking and presentation skills. The result was Speech and Debate: Global Citizenship, a 12-week course for 3rd–5th graders that launched in early 2020. SJPL has since run the program seven times.
With help from Tong and other volunteer instructors, students learn the basics of speech, such as proper body language and how to structure and support claims—for example, why people of various genders and sexualities should be able to express themselves without experiencing discrimination, or why people who are unhoused need support beyond shelter. Participants make a final presentation in front of the group, and each session centers on current or historic social justice topics, with the program so far covering Black Lives Matter, colonization, and LGBTQ issues.
“There are kids who don’t know they can have a voice,” says Bridget Kowalczyk, the SJPL youth services librarian who oversees the program. “They’re learning they have every much right as any other child to speak out on something.”
Though many high schools and colleges offer speech classes and debate clubs, public libraries are increasingly creating programs for patrons who aren’t part of that traditional demographic—particularly elementary schoolers and older adults.
“In this day and age, it’s all about networking and being able to have conversations with people,” says Tamara Lyhne, head of children’s services at Fairfield (Conn.) Public Library (FPL), who organized a debate program for kids at her library in summer 2021. Instilling those skills in young people, she says, makes a community stronger.
Keeping it civil
Program coordinators say debate not only builds participants’ confidence but also helps them develop research skills, as they learn to form credible arguments in a world rife with misinformation.
“The free exchange of ideas is what the library is all about,” says Lyman Clayborn, coordinator of the Services for Older Adults department at Brooklyn (N.Y.) Public Library (BPL). In partnership with the nonprofit Association for Senior Debate, Clayborn’s department ran three six-week pilot sessions starting in fall 2021.
BPL defines older adults as anyone 55 and over; Senior Debate for Older Adults has attracted participants as old as 94, says Berena Hughes, BPL’s outreach program assistant and a debate program coordinator.
“We have a diverse and dynamic senior demographic,” Hughes says. “A lot of them can bring their experiences, add that to a program like Senior Debate, and make the debates interesting, spirited, and fun at the same time.”
Each session culminated in a tournament in which teams argued the affirmative or negative to resolutions such as “The US should implement a universal basic income” and “Sending NASA to Mars would be a waste of taxpayer dollars.”
Above all, Hughes says Senior Debate promotes the concept of civil discourse.
“We don’t make things personal, and we don’t take things personally” is the instruction she gives participants. “Gladly disagree, not a problem, but we’re not going to get ugly.”
As COVID-19 forced BPL and other libraries to pivot their programming online, Senior Debate debuted over Zoom, though it eventually moved to a hybrid model. By the time the program started, Hughes said most participants had some experience with videoconferencing through other library programs or socializing with family and friends. Anyone who needed extra help was referred to a BPL digital literacy associate who could assist with technology questions.
Early in the pandemic, Clayborn and Hughes say patrons especially wanted to take up new skills and feel less isolated. Senior Debate brought new faces to the library—and fostered new friendships. To spread the word about the program, Hughes advertised via email, social media, and the library’s website. When patrons returned to BPL in higher numbers in summer 2022, she set up promotional tables at 20 of the system’s 60 locations.
When FPL offered debate as part of its 2021 summer reading program, most people who signed up were library newcomers. FPL’s program met outdoors to accommodate social distancing, and a dozen 3rd–5th graders were able to socialize in a way that hadn’t been possible after more than a year of online schooling, Lyhne says.
Over four weeks, kids prepared for a final public debate inspired by Jerry Pallotta’s Who Would Win? children’s book series. Teams took sides arguing which animals would win in a battle: tiger versus cheetah, snake versus panda, and so on.
For their arguments, students learned how to conduct research using reference books, particularly learning how to use an index.
“We did not say, ‘Go home and google it,’” Lyhne explains.
After the students presented their positions to staffers and parents, Lyhne says the audience ended up not declaring any winners. “The [kids] just had a really good time,” she recalls. “And it was nice to see because it had been such a long year.”
Despite COVID-19 restrictions loosening, SJPL’s program has stayed virtual to keep it accessible for students and volunteers across the city. The library provides laptops and Wi-Fi hotspots to participants who need them, says Tiffany Bradford-Oldham, senior librarian and branch manager at SJPL who helps manage the program.
Having a virtual program also enables greater transparency with parents, Bradford-Oldham adds, because they can listen in on sessions. “They could talk to their children about what they learned and maybe even give some insight into how that relates to their day-to-day lives,” she says.
For libraries interested in creating a debate program for younger children, support from both caregivers and library administration is crucial, Bradford-Oldham says—especially if the program will cover subjects that could be deemed controversial.
“We haven’t seen a lot of pushback, but I think it’s [because of] the strength of where we are as a state and our willingness to be very upfront,” she says.
Program coordinators also emphasized the importance of flexibility—not only to adjust the debate curriculum to match the pace of the class but also for those running the program. BPL’s Hughes notes she had no debate experience before her library’s program but gave herself room to learn alongside participants.
Debate is something any patron can master, Hughes says, regardless of age or experience level.
“Don’t count [anyone] out,” Hughes says. “No matter how old they are.