Great debaters

Chronicle Staff

By Sade Tavangarian

With five minutes to spare before their first round, Jake Sonnenberg ’11 and Ben Sprung-Keyser ’11 relax and can only think about one thing: taking the gold. As they confidently walk into their rounds, they take deep breaths and let the flow of their arguments raise them to the top.

Sonnenberg and Sprung-Keyser have been debating since fifth grade after being introduced to the activity by their teacher. Their teacher suggested the class build three-person teams to compete in the parliamentary middle school debate program.

“It was coincidental how my teacher exposed us to the program. I didn’t know what debating meant but I knew I loved to argue with people,” Sonnenberg recalled.

As Sonnenberg, Sprung-Keyser and teammate Chris Holthouse ’11, who all attended Curtis, invested more time in the program, they decided to give their first tournament a try. The team went 0-5. “I was set to quit our team. We finished last place, but I ended up winning first speaker award at the tournament. That changed, ” Sonnenberg said.

The team won several league tournaments throughout the fifth and sixth grades and won nationals in sixth grade.

When Holthouse, Sonnenberg and Sprung-Keyser came to the Middle School they discovered there was no debate program at the campus.

“We marched into Huybrechts’ office and told her we wanted to continue debate and start a club at the school,” Sonnenberg said.

Middle school teachers history teachers Matthew Cutler, Karen Fukushima and Stephen Chan sponsored the team and the boys officially brought back the debate program to the Middle School. The program is now run by English and Foreign Language teacher Claire Pasternack and Librarian David Wee.

The boys soon started to take home the gold at every tournament they entered in seventh and eighth grade. Currently, with 100 students, the program is a huge success. The Middle School now offers debate class as an alternative to public speaking for eighth graders. This year, over half of the grade took the class.

When Sonnenberg and Sprung-Keyser came to the Upper School, they did not immediately join debate.

“I came to the Upper School trying to figure out what I wanted to do so I wasn’t sure if I should start debate again,” Sprung-Keyser said.

The transition from parliamentary to the Lincoln-Douglas style of debate intimidated the debaters at first, but soon enough they both fell in love with the program.

“I started going to practices and seriously invested my time this year in LD. It’s much faster, technical and worthwhile,” Sprung-Keyser said.

Sonnenberg’s biggest concern was the fear that he wouldn’t be as successful in the new program. “I heard LD was a lot faster talking, more research and most of the kids at tournaments were juniors and seniors,” he said.

“I am excited to learn something new and get involved with something different. The depth of argumentation, strategy, and critical thinking can’t be found anywhere else,” Sonnenberg said.

Junior year was a huge achievement for both debaters as they both received bids to compete in the prestigious Tournament of Champions on the weekend of May 1 in Lexington at the University of Kentucky. In order to attend the TOCs debaters need two bids to compete. Sprung-Keyser received his at the Victory Briefs Tournament in January at UCLA after making octos and making semifinals at the Golden Desert tournament.

Sonnenberg received his bid after winning first place at the Meadows tournament in Las Vegas and reaching finals at Harvard University. He broke at every tournament this year and was invited to three Round Robins at Montgomery Bell Academy in Nashville, Ten, the Harker School in San Jose and the Harvard round.

“It is fantastic to have a smart partner to be able to work with. It is helpful to push each other,” Sprung-Keyser said.

Not only are they involved on the school debate team, but both are also members of the U.S. World Champion team. They debated in South Korea in November and plan to debate in London this summer. Sprung-Keyser also debated in Qatar for two weeks in February.

“The best thing about debate for me is no issue is as clear-cut as it first appears. It sounds cliché but you get to see the good and bad sides of topics as you learn to debate both sides,” Sonnenberg said.

“I’m 100 percent sure I want to continue debate in college. Whether its policy, LD or parliamentary, I’m excited,” he said.