Students Teach Debate Skills to Help At-Risk Youth Succeed

Diana Funez

Student Profile: Josh Aaronson, AB'19 (Economics/Computer Science, expected) and Leah Shapiro, AB'18 (Comparative Human Development, expected)


"Our major goal is not to create the next class of greatest debaters, but to give students skills that are necessary to succeed," says rising third year Josh Aaronson. Combining their experience and passion in debate and education, Aaronson and rising fourth year Leah Shapiro founded nonprofit organization Debate It Forward to develop children’s empathy, self-confidence, and public speaking skills.


I decided that if we could find a way to deemphasize the competitive nature of debate, we could probably expand it to a much broader population of kids that currently lack access. - Leah Shapiro

Aaronson and Shapiro’s friendship started years before they met again in DelGiorno House and decided to start their organization. “We went to summer camp together when we were about thirteen, and we were friends then,” says Aaronson, who took a gap year to work as a teacher with nonprofit organization City Year in Milwaukee. “My first year here, we were placed in the same House and just immediately reconnected.” His experience in creating data-driven lesson plans for his small groups of students in City Year met Leah’s years of experience and national success in debate. With their mutual enthusiasm for teaching, the two friends took on a mission to see how their experiences could help students. 


The idea for Debate It Forward first came to Shapiro during a car ride with her restless cousin and soon flourished into a multi-classroom organization. Trying to distract the six-year old from a temper tantrum, Shapiro immediately turned to debate. “I told him that I was going to say something and he had to prove me wrong,” she says. “Immediately, he was enthralled and we played debate for over an hour.” Though she loved learning and connecting with others in preparing for tournaments, Shapiro says that she did not enjoy the high levels of stress that came with competing. “After this event, I started thinking about how successful that experience was for him,” says Shapiro. “I decided that if we could find a way to deemphasize the competitive nature of debate, we could probably expand it to a much broader population of kids that currently lack access.” She and Aaronson started a test class in the lab school last fall. Debate It Forward has since grown to eleven classrooms and two summer programs.


Aaronson and Shapiro tailor Debate It Forward to the needs of young students in first through eighth grade, students of low income, and students with diagnosed learning and behavioral differences because these are the three groups that don’t typically get access to debate. “Leah and I co-teach so that there are two teachers in the room,” says Aaronson. “It makes more sense in terms of safety, but also so that each one can take a different side and give more attention to students.” They work with a game-based system with necessary skills isolated through their activities.


Every day, students are challenged to research and argue on topics ranging from pressing social issues to artificial intelligence. “There are often similar topics for elementary and middle school students, adjusted to make them more applicable to their age group,” says Shapiro. Practicing their research skills, students spend the first part of their day researching a topic and then building arguments around their examples. One day, Aaronson and Shapiro took their students to the Museum of Science and Industry and asked if artificial intelligence was a threat to human civilization. “Students went to the Robotics exhibit, took notes, and had to think of creative reasons for why it either was a threat or wasn’t a threat,” says Aaronson. “Then students used that research in debate-related activities through the end of the day.”


One of the most important focuses for Aaronson and Shapiro is students’ ability to defend both sides of an argument. “We focus a lot on empathy because since in debate you have to take both sides of an argument whether or not you agree, you are going to develop your perspective-taking skills,” says Aaronson. He cites one instance where a student was given the perspective he disagreed with, but relied on what he had learned to form his argument. “We asked students ‘Should we colonize space?’” says Aaronson. “First this student went through a stage where he convinced himself and saw both sides and then he was able to defend the side that we had given him.” This exercise can then be applied when students encounter an argument in real life.


Balancing schoolwork and teaching has not been easy, says Aaronson, but their different strengths and interests complement each other perfectly. “I do the financial projections and the budget,” says Aaronson, who is majoring in Computer Science and Economics. “Leah does more of the impact measurement/content of programming.” Shapiro’s major is Comparative Human Development, which she describes as the intersection of psychology, sociology, biology, and anthropology. “I’m focusing generally on culture and community but, more specifically, on child development and education,” she says.


Just as their students and organization have grown, Aaronson and Shapiro have developed their own skills. “I think we’ve gotten better at knowing how to support each other and help each other do better,” says Aaronson. Through this process they have learned to use the alumni network at the University and have dealt with the complicated aspects of starting and running a nonprofit. They now look forward to expanding Debate It Forward to DePaul and hope for the organization to grow to other universities as well. One of their goals for themselves, they say, is “to keep working on our strengths through building out our network of mentors and advisors.”


The two friends have enjoyed the experience of helping their students. “It’s always good to see students learning and figuring out how to be persuasive,” says Aaronson, “but also enjoying themselves and learning to be creative.” Shapiro has similar thoughts. “Creating this organization has been an incredible opportunity,” says Shapiro, “from learning technical matters I never expected to need to know (e.g. grant writing and accounting) to becoming a stronger and more well-rounded leader to our staff, to encouraging young students in their debate classes, it’s been quite a ride.”