Home News and Features The Montpelier U-32 Debate Team: Arguing for the Fun of It

The Montpelier U-32 Debate Team: Arguing for the Fun of It

The Montpelier U-32 Debate Team, from left: Logan Kimbell, Merrick Modun, Anika Turcotte, Annabelle Moreland, Wakeland Newman, Habiboullah Melloud, Coach Bronwyn Fryer, Cal Boyd, Assistant Coach Emmett Allen. Photo by Matt McLane.
It’s 4:15 on a Monday afternoon and the halls of Montpelier High School are quiet. The slap of echoing footsteps comes from some corner of the building and then there’s silence again. But if you keep walking past the MHS library, all the way down to Room 101, you’ll begin to hear the buzz of voices and discover a group of teenagers engaging in heavy discussions. A few are researching. A few are composing questions for their opponents and others are arguing. 

This is the Montpelier U-32 debate team and many of them, Anika Turcotte, for example, really love arguing. 

“I come from an argumentative family,” she says, “We like to discuss complex issues.” 

Perhaps it’s not surprising that the Montpelier High School junior is beginning her third year on the team and is one of the two team leaders. Last year she was ranked second best speaker in the state. 

Today the topic is Right to Work. Before beginning their research, team members were assigned their position (affirmative or negative) by the flip of the coin. This routine feature of high school debating draws fire from some critics who feel it suggests that “the goal is to defend a given claim at any cost” instead of seeking out the most reasonable conclusion. 

This team would be willing to debate that point. According to Anika, “The nature of debate where you are given a topic and have to be prepared to argue pro or con based on the flip of a coin forces you to step beyond preconceptions you may have. Since I’ve joined debating, I’m less quick to jump to a conclusion.” 

Merrick Modun, the other team leader agrees, “I think differently about the news now, looking at it from multiple perspectives. … asking myself, ‘Is this claim valid?’”

Merrick also grew up in a home that enjoys discussions. “My mom and my step-dad are both lawyers.” By the time this MHS senior receives his high school diploma, he will have run for public office … twice. His most recent run is for the Montpelier City Council, up for vote on March 7. 

Merrick and Anika have already won two tournaments this season, but Anika points out, “One of my favorite rounds was actually the only one we’ve lost (so far). We were really well matched against our opponents and they had some strong points … We were able to agree on certain things while still arguing the significance and that really escalates the debate to a higher and more enjoyable level.”

The debate team is coached by Bronwyn Fryer and assistant coach Emmett Allen, a first-year cadet at Norwich from Montana. Allen has the authoritative voice of a seasoned debater, the kind of speaker who could hold an audience just by reciting the alphabet. 

Fryer is a writer and editor, formerly with Harvard Business Review. She’s frank, however, about gaps in her resume. “I used to teach rhetoric and writing at UC Berkeley … But I knew zilch about high school debate. I’ve had to rely on my varsity team leaders to do the real teaching … Anika and Merrick developed a whole curriculum around it.” 

Fryer has a lot to offer, however, and not just the cookies she often brings to meetings. Her professional background provides the team with rare opportunities. Recently, her friend, Hal Gregersen, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and author of the award winning book, “Questions Are the Answer,” met with the team via Zoom to talk about the power of questioning. 

Most of the members of the MHS U-32 team are new this year because many on last year’s team graduated in 2022. Nevertheless, Anika is optimistic: ”They (the new members) are so talented. They constantly come up with strategies and angles I wouldn’t have thought of.” 

Whether you’re a veteran debater or a new player, debating is a highly competitive undertaking. Annabelle Moreland, a sophomore at U-32, was surprised at first. “I knew we would be arguing things but I didn’t know people would be yelling.” Her partner Cal Boyd grins, “Yeah, it can get pretty intense.” 

There’s a lot of research and preparation for a new topic and a lot of multitasking during a tournament. What do these high school students get in return? Most debaters talk about the increased self confidence and the ability to think on your feet. Anika enjoys the sense of community she feels not just with her teammates but with other kids in debating circles. 

Montpelier High sophomore Logan Kimble hesitates before he answers, “ I know a lot more about the real world and I’ve learned to be persuasive. I know colleges really like to see debating on your application but … I didn’t know it would be so fun.”