The students used their five minutes of prep time diligently. They pored over their notes and eyed the opposing team, trying to recall where someone messed up or misspoke.
With a last-minute shuffle of papers, Jeffrey Chen stood up from his schoolroom chair, cleared his throat and spoke loudly and assuredly.
“It’s not the Internet’s fault that you’re going on it,” said the second-grader at Craig Elementary School. “The Internet’s always on. It’s your choice if you’re going to stop right now or you’re going to keep on playing until your mom tells you to stop or someone tells you to stop.”
Sitting back down, the youngster appeared satisfied with his rebuttal to the opponent team’s argument that many people no longer spend time outdoors because they’re often glued to the computer screen. Nevertheless, he braced for a counter-argument during the school’s second debate of the year.
The 11 students in this year’s debate club, ranging from grades one to five, had varying demeanors, confidence and viewpoints when it was their turn to debate the topic of Internet safety on Dec. 1.
But to their parent supervisor, Olga Poltnikov, they were all practicing an art she said is hard to find among students at any age: critical thinking.
“I know that critical thinking is down among the kids,” she said. “All the tests show it as the lowest point. Another thing, if you would only hear the kids in the middle school when they talk to the teachers — they can’t even make a sentence clearly. So I think it’s very important to start at this age.”
It wasn’t always smooth, though. Some fumbled, some dropped prepared statements, one blushed noticeably and another sped through a printout from the Internet barely taking time to breathe.
But each made an effort. When one student finished her prepared statement, a relaxed composure would come over her and she’d let out a final, logical counterpoint, as if that’s what she meant to say all along.
Poltnikov, the students’ parents and school Principal Bill Anders were pleased to see those moments of clarity.
“The debate club gives a valuable opportunity for children to learn how to develop a point of view and experience at expressing this point of view,” Anders said. “The children are motivated to participate, and their debates are often thought-provoking.”
Third-grader Alex Pan spoke loudly and clearly when he told the room about Internet predators. They try to steal people “by playing a video game called a chat room,” he said.
Fifth-grader Rishika Chavali took her turn. She told the classroom, dotted with parents, about hackers, game addiction, lack of outdoor playtime and “something called cyberbullying that can really hurt your feelings.”
The issue of cyberbullying is one students at the Niskayuna school are familiar with. Nearly all of the young students had heard of the cyberbullying incident at the high school, in which two YouTube videos surfaced in October that threatened specific students.
Kamreyn Almas became visibly annoyed when the opposing team tried to use the instance as a reason the Internet does more harm than good.
“People keep talking about that, but they shouldn’t,” said the fifth-grader. “Those videos were taken down. If you search for them, they don’ t even show up anymore.”
Of course the Internet can be dangerous, she said. Then again, so can roads, pens and even flashlights, she quipped.
“That doesn’t mean we have to get rid of them, because that wouldn’t be very reasonable,” said Almas. “For example, you can stab somebody with a pen, but only if you’re misusing it. But the Internet, if you use it properly, then it would actually be very useful, but if you use something improperly, then it wouldn’t.”
Poltnikov congratulated the students when they made a good point. She would also refocus them when they went off topic.
Poltnikov’s son Dennis is on the team. The third-grader appeared to be skilled at arguing, and his mother confirmed that he first got his knack for debating at home. She thought it might be best for him to direct his spirited debates toward a more useful purpose.
“Actually, yeah, he inspired me,” she laughed. “And I don’t have the time or the resources to actually debate things at home.”
The club, now in its second year, will meet 14 times this school year. Students will debate topics ranging from the value of making New Year’s resolutions to whether children should be exposed to graphic video games.
Although the debates may not be as sophisticated as high school or college debates, Poltnikov said, they’re still important for students at the elementary-school level.
“They learn how to stand up and speak loudly and make their own point, which is very important.”