Finding ‘more room for depth of discussion,’ West High debaters take on international competition

Ella Johanknecht admits to an inauspicious start to her debate career.

“I’ve been debating since middle school,” said the senior at Anchorage’s West High. “I really used to love arguing with my parents. That was kind of what started it.”

Johanknecht eventually took a more formal and potentially less rebellious approach, joining debate teams at Romig Middle School and later at West.

This weekend she is joined by a pair of classmates — Dane Lester and Mona Koko — in New York City for the finals of the International Public Policy Forum, one of the nation’s biggest debate competitions for high school students.

And while arguments might be at the core of debate, West coach Michaela Kolerok said it is much more about preparation and interaction.

“Debate is not arguing,” she said. “Debate is the process of making arguments but also being capable of hearing what someone else is saying, attempting to understand it and then responding to it.”

The competition started in the fall with upwards of 300 teams from 26 countries submitting qualifying essays on whether governments should provide a universal basic income. That number was whittled down to 64 teams, and at that time, each team was given a position to take on the debate topic.


Saturday’s finals include live debate rounds, which does involve case writing, but to be delivered and defended orally. Although the West team has done well at state competitions in Debate, Drama and Forensics, this will be their first out-of-state competition. They’re also the only team out of Alaska to ever reach this level of the competition, Kolerok said.

Both Johanknecht and Kolerok said being able to argue both sides of a topic is one of debate’s greatest benefits.

“It teaches you how to talk to people you do not agree with and how to understand somebody’s position even if you are not going to adopt it,” Kolerok said.

As part of a generation that’s increasingly online, Johanknecht believes in-person debating has taught her to understand nuance and step outside the echo chambers of her friend groups or social media circles.

“When you’re in person, you can speak through things,” she said. “There’s a lot more room for depth of discussion and, I also think, kind of empathy because you can explain more and there’s tone that comes through. Online, there’s like a character limit, or all sorts of things like that cut you off before you can even express yourself fully.”

The biggest evolution in debate has been the ease of access to troves of information. Johanknecht points out parsing that information can be the most difficult part of the process. With the multitude of sources comes more responsibility, Kolerok said. A lot of discussion within the team is recognizing where different forms of research are funded and being aware of confirmation bias as well their own personal biases.

“I think the kids are seeing the issue from a different perspective, because of the research they’re doing and the engagement they’re doing with other teams,” she said.

While debate has historically been a practical venture for students interested in law, Kolerok said her teams have traditionally gone into a wide range of further studies and professions. She said it’s helped students with critical thinking, writing and research that applies to a number of careers.

“I have kids who are becoming engineers, who became doctors, who ended up working for senators in D.C.,” she said. “So it’s kind of all over the place.”

Johanknecht is interested in public health but said debate has made her consider a career that tackles the field’s broader scope instead of focusing on biology.

Johanknecht and Lester have become good friends as debate partners over the years. Although Koko wasn’t part of the West High team that won the ASAA Division I debate crown, she rounded out the team that qualified for the International Public Policy Forum finals. The team faced off with seven other teams Saturday, but was unable to advance out of the quarterfinals. Still the trip was an undeniable success, according to Kolerok.

“They’re really proud and really excited,” she said. “It is the ultimate endorsement of all the work that they’ve put into the process. So they’re just really excited and really proud. And frankly, I’m really proud of them too. I think it’s great.”

Regardless of the result, Johanknecht and her teammates have still developed important skills, ones that might even give them a leg up in future debates with their parents. So far, she said her results are inconclusive.

“Who won is kind of up in the air,” she said. “I like to think I won a lot of them, but my parents would say otherwise.”

Chris Bieri

Chris Bieri is the sports and entertainment editor at the Anchorage Daily News.