By Tracee Davis


BIG HORN — Big Horn Middle School is one of four middle schools around the state that has a speech and debate team. This is the first year this extracurricular has been made available to middle schoolers in Sheridan County, and while it’s true the activity takes a notable amount of both brains and courage, the young team members are proving capable.

Midway into the team’s working season, the program is showing promise to sharpen skills and enrich life experiences. Coach Dustin Olsen said he decided to form the team because he participated in speech and debate in his high school years and it made a lasting impression on him.

“It was life-changing,” he said. “There are so many skills it can teach you, from being able to think on your feet, to organize a speech and talk in front of a group of people. There were so many things I did when I went on into college and just in life that I don’t think I would have tried if I didn’t have that background.”

Olsen sent an email to parents in the district explaining his idea and ultimately ended up with seven students who wanted to participate in the activity alongside their high school counterparts. Practice times are informal student choice and either before school, during the lunch break or, most popularly, after school.

“Our high school students do a lot in terms of helping the younger students,” he said. “And, it makes them better at their level because it helps them deconstruct what’s going on and understand it better.”

Middle school students compete in four events: debate, impromptu, poetry and acting. They hosted their first meet at home last weekend in conjunction with the high school speech and debate team and will travel to Newcastle and Thunder Basin in the following weekends.

Susie Mohrmann served as a volunteer judge for the home meet. She went into the situation with some spot training from organizers and the students themselves.

“This experience is one that changed me as an adult,” she said. “I deal with K-12 students day in and day out. I have a daughter in public schools, but I wasn’t involved in this program. It is so valuable and I will forever be involved with judging. I loved it that much.”

Mohrmann is an instructional facilitator with Sheridan County School District 1, and said the activity brings out an impressive level of cohesiveness and competency in students, and she called the level of practice, memorization, voice inflection, gestures and full understanding of history and relevant topics amazing.

“It was obvious the training all teams had through their coaches, sponsors and parents was more than just about their competitive event. In between sessions, students were diligently practicing their events in the halls,” she said. “The running joke is that speech and debate kids talk to walls, which they were doing.”

Adam Zimmer also served as a judge.

“I didn’t really know what to expect at that level and they did a great job,” he said. “It’s not easy to get up in front of a group of people, and if kids can do that, it’s something they’re going to be able to use for the rest of their lives.”

Olsen said he hopes to see his team grow in the coming years and eventually increase participation at the high school level as well.