When the local university was no longer able to host a speech and debate camp in the summer, speech and debate coaches in the Texas Panhandle filled the void with a free summer co-op to provide opportunities for students to come together and prepare for competition in the upcoming school year.
In the three years since the West Texas Speech Co-op began, it has grown to include more than 10 schools each year, with some that travel up to 100 miles away.
How does a co-op work?
By definition, a co-op is a collection of people who voluntarily unite to meet a common need. Coaches, students and other volunteers (like local university speech teams and recent high school graduates) agree to give of their time to make it work.
Ryan Lovell, speech and debate coach at Tascosa High School in Amarillo, describes it this way:
“The Co-op represents a labor of love: coaches who love their jobs volunteering their time to teach students from any school, and students who love this activity giving up time in their summer to become more excellent competitors.”
To start a co-op of your own, communicate with all those who might have an interest and decide on a date and place that works best. The end of the summer can get busy with marching band practice and athletic team trainings, so find a date that works to provide for the largest number of coaches and the highest number of students, knowing that there will likely be conflicts with some of both.
Consider working the daily schedule of your co-op to include times that consider those who have other engagements. For instance, providing morning and afternoon sessions allows marching band students an opportunity to come for at least part of the day. The West Texas Speech Co-op runs from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. for three days at the end of July or beginning of August.
Finding a central location is important. You will need a host who will provide classrooms for workshops and learning, computers and/or access to the internet, and space for practicing and live coaching. When considering a location, think about logistics like a central location, air conditioning and restaurants that are near.
Because this is a co-op, not a camp, every coach who brings students is expected to help. Assign one or two adults as leader for each event you will offer at your co-op so there is someone who is always in the group as a contact point. Then allow coaches and other adult volunteers to help in areas where they feel comfortable and have expertise, but also allow them to move to other events as needed. Coaches and volunteers then create a plan for each session and a goal for the students they will be helping. This provides general direction for the sessions, even though plans are likely to change throughout the week.
An example goal from the West Texas Speech Co-op is to have all oral interpretation students prepare at least two events by the end of the co-op, which includes selecting literature, cutting it to fit the time limit and working on physical movement for the performance.
Another example is for student congressional debaters to research and write two pieces of original legislation. Since students will work at different paces, this goal helps the teachers know how to help each one. Depending on the time allotted for your co-op, there might even be time at the end for a mini-tournament for debaters or performance day for the speakers and interpretation students.
When all the plans are made, distribute the information toward the end of the school year. To make planning easier, develop some means by which you can track who will be in attendance and what event they are interested in working on. We use a Google form to collect the data.
Why have a Co-op?
Joni Price, former debate coach from Caprock High School in Amarillo, says it best. “In my experience as a teacher I have not witnessed anything like this. I am a coach’s kid, so I am familiar with spending time in the summer with crazy intense practice. What I am not familiar with is giving of your time, effort, energy and expertise to help any kid that shows up, even if they are in direct competition with your own students. It is truly about the betterment of the ‘sport.’ If the student is willing, they will be helped, coached and taught. This is a ‘community’ way of thinking in an individual way of thinking world. The co-op is what the community of speech teachers models every day.”
A community is indeed established. When everyone is networking and connecting, the competition side of what we do in speech and debate is enhanced. Students learn to respect those who they will be competing against and gain the perspective of what coaches and adult volunteers who will likely be judging them at local tournaments are going to be judging on.
Students also get ahead and receive input from multiple professionals with a variety of skills. Coaches and volunteers learn from each other as well, by sharing lessons and coaching strategies. Friendships are made which is evident in the camaraderie that can be seen in tournaments throughout the year. Students support each other by cheering each other on, going to watch each other in finals rounds, and celebrating the success of each other, often times for those who were their competition.
In the end, a co-op is easy to implement, gives students the chance to jumpstart their competitive year and allows students and coaches to network, creating a united approach to meet a need.
Mellessa Denny of Amarillo High School in Amarillo, Texas, has coached high school speech and debate for 20 years, with students participating on the local, state and national levels. She is the past president of the Texas Speech Communication Association, and in October 2018 was selected as TSCA Secondary Teacher of the Year.