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Urban Debate Research Project

“All students must have the opportunities and resources to develop the language skills they need to pursue life’s goals and to participate fully as informed, productive members of society.” - IRA/NCTE Standards for the English Language Arts 

Urban Debate is premised on the belief that all young people should be provided with an education that develops their academic literacies and civic capacities to live healthy and meaningful lives and as active and engaged citizens of a vibrant democracy. With these goals in mind, the Urban Debate research project promotes culturally engaging and relevant debate trainings and opportunities for New York students attending Title 1 public schools and studies salient ways in which the oral, literary, compositional, and rhetorical elements of competitive academic debate develop academic literacies, promote college-readiness, foster meaningful civic engagement, and increase teacher classroom engagement and effectiveness in meeting the Core Standards in English Language Arts. Towards these ends, the project has four key initiatives: summer training, debate opportunities during the school year, professional development for teachers, and research. 

CLICK HERE FOR UPCOMING TOURNAMENTS, SPRING SCHEDULE, AND OTHER NEWS ABOUT THE NYC URBAN DEBATE LEAGUE!

Goals and Objectives 


Academic Literacy 

  • One of the goals of Urban Debate is to assist students in developing the language and tools that they need to succeed academically at a high school- and college-level:
  • Read widely, deeply, and critically across myriad informational and literary texts with comprehension.
  • Think and write analytically, logically, critically, and creatively with skill by integrating literacy tools and a wide-range of texts that build upon the knowledge students bring into the classroom.
  • Listen and speak effectively, persuasively, and responsibly in a variety of ways and settings.
  • Know and apply core concepts and principles of civics, history, geography, arts, mathematics, physical and life sciences, and English Language Arts.
  • Think analytically, logically, critically, and creatively and integrate to build knowledge, broaden worldviews, form reasoned judgments, and solve problems.
  • The process of researching, developing and debating a position, and exploring multiple viewpoints regarding each issue teaches students to synthesize competing viewpoints into a well-reasoned argument for solving a problem. Understand the importance of work and how performance, effort and decisions directly affect future career and educational opportunities.
  • Develop the skills, confidence and pathways to be powerful readers, writers, thinkers, and speakers who are prepared for success in college.


Learning is not merely about passing a test, class, or getting a grade but becomes a means to travel to tournaments, win awards, build friendships, get into college, and develop a critical capacity to be advocates for change.

Invested Civic and Democratic Engagement Another goal is to foster skills that youth need to function as active participants in a democracy that they can both shape and govern. Toward this end this project is interested in the ways in which participants:  

  • Develop mastery of oral and written language and rhetorical problem solving skills to resolve conflict.
  • Learn about salient policy issues including the role of government, governmental processes, health and social well being, environmental issues, civil rights, economics, education policy, and countless other social, cultural and politically relevant topics.
  • Become invested in responsible citizenship as students apply their talents and research to address needs in the public sphere.
  • Develop justified confidence in public speaking and writing about their ideas.
  • Develop strong interpersonal and collaborative skills with peers and adults by working in teams during classes, practice debates and in preparation for weekend competitions. Project Components Summer Institute Housed at Teachers College, Columbia University, IUME partners with the New York City Urban Debate League to provide culturally relevant instruction in: 
  • Rhetoric and argumentation
  • Public speaking
  • Original and secondary research
  • Academic and creative writing
  • Critical media literacy
  • Hip-Hop as a mode of argumentation and presentation
  • Leadership development
  • Social, cultural, political, and economic theories and issues
  • Training to prepare students to debate at tournaments during the academic year

Over the course of several weeks, students work in small groups to design research proposals and create dynamic speeches by utilizing a wide-range of rhetorical and literary techniques. To support this work, participants conduct original research as well as read, discuss, analyze and apply literature in critical theory, cultural studies, media studies, current events, Hip-Hop studies, public policy, and social theory to develop arguments, policy proposals and powerful speeches that address issues related to equity and social justice in participants’ schools, communities, and the larger society. 

School-Year Opportunities

During the school year this project seeks to document the educational contexts that provide participants with training and opportunities to practice voicing their own researched views on the most pressing political, economic, social and cultural questions facing their generation. These educational contexts include: 

  • Local and national weekend debate tournaments throughout the academic school year.
  • These weekend tournaments consist of at least five 90-minute evidence-based debate “rounds” where the top teams and speakers will receive awards.
  • Additional forums in which participants can apply their research, demonstrate their talents and share their voices with a broader audience.
  • These forums include: public debates, presenting research proposals to policymakers, and presenting at regional and national educational conferences

Professional Development for Classroom Teachers 

The aim of the professional development component is to develop the capacity of teachers to coach competitive debate teams as well as ways to apply debate instruction across the curriculum in English Language Arts classrooms to meet curricular objectives. Longitudinal Research The 2012 summer institute will be the first phase in a three-year qualitative study examining the pedagogical implications for the field of urban education and English Language Arts. This research is guided by the following research questions:   
1.     How does the project increase youth interest in participating in competitive academic policy debate?
2.     How does the project increase academic literacies? 
3.     How do youth use debate for civic and political engagement? 
4.     How does the teacher training component translate into innovative classroom pedagogy that combines youths creative production with content area knowledge? 

This multi-tiered research design includes: interviews with students and teachers, participatory-observation of instructional contexts including the summer debate institute and at least six debate tournaments during the academic school year, and an evaluation of the textual products created by the student participants. 

For more information on the New York City Urban Debate League visit: http://nycudl.org

Columbia University Summer Debate Institute

Led by IUME Research Fellow Jen Johnson, in the Summer of 2012, she led an 8-week summer institute that was a huge success. Watch the recap video below: