Narvie J. Harris debate teacher distinguishes DeKalb County School District

Critical thinking. Problem solving. Teamwork. Competition. Enthusiasm.

These are just a few things offered by an activity that is taking DeKalb County School District (DCSD) students at almost every grade level by storm: debate.

Latasha-Bennett-poses-at-muralJust ask Latasha Bennett, Narvie J. Harris Elementary Theme School’s gifted specialist and debate coach. Her first-year team—made up of 29 fourth and fifth grade students—has blossomed into a group of students proficient in research, public speaking, and analysis.

At debate competitions, students put their writing, public speaking, problem solving, teamwork, and critical thinking skills to the test against other local schools. Groups of three answer questions by providing an affirmative or negative response.

Students are judged by their style, speed, tone, and overall demeanor.

Narvie J. Harris’s team claimed victories in more than 60 contests across five competitions during the 2017-2018 school year. The team, which competes against schools from Fulton County, Atlanta Public Schools, Cobb County and beyond, was consistently recognized for their sportsmanship, as well as their overall ability when put under pressure.

Such accolades have led to Latasha Bennett being named Atlanta Urban Debate League’s 2017-2018 Coach of the Year. She credits her relationship with students, their parents, and a genuine sense of care as the primary reasons for earning such a distinction.

narvie-j-harris-debate-team“I feel great about it,” Bennett said. “I think about the times I’ve seen my students go from being dependent on me to being independent. Students trust me, and I told them that research and debate was fun, so they believed research and debate is fun. They look at me as a role model.”

Bennett’s coaching style is simple: information first. She ensures students know the information by whatever means necessary, be it breaking it up into chunks, reading articles, highlighting articles, finding their articles—whatever it takes for students to grasp a concept.

From there, students will draft speeches, practice speaking, and craft their arguments until they are perfect. According to Bennett, students grow to know what they need without her guidance.

“It’s more student-led instruction,” Bennett said. “We have gone from me telling them to do it, to them actually knowing what they should be working on themselves.”

This year has been a challenge for Bennett—not because of the students’ motivation or research skills, but because she considered them “too sweet.”

“This is a group of sweet students—they don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings,” Bennett said. “I had to help them gain their fire, in a sense. Many students said they did not speak well, they weren’t loud enough, they were scared. After going to our first [competition], I didn’t have to convince them of anything. It just came naturally.”

two-narvie-j-harris-boys-stand-smilingOne student, Bennett recalls, was soft-spoken and shy at the beginning of the school year. By May 2018, parents were remarking how the student was “a beast” on the debate floor.

“She’s so sweet, and has such a soft voice,” Bennett said. “I had a parent from another team come up to me and say, ‘I thought she was sweet, but she’s a beast!’ Students go in, do everything we practice here, and the pressure is off. They believe in themselves.”

Bennett’s secret as a 25-year educator is a healthy dose of the unfamiliar.

“What I try to do is expose students to things that they’re not getting in a general classroom setting. This includes not just debate but also coding, a stock market game, and other extensions to lessons in regular classrooms,” Bennett said.

Bennett’s main mission is to improve students’ writing, communication and presentation skills—a need she identified when she first arrived at Narvie J. Harris. As long as the debate team remains in place at the DCSD elementary school, she’s confident she can make an overall difference.