I'm Fighting a Smelt: A Forensics Team is a Model Learning Community

Daniel E. Schabot, Ph. D.
Lower Columbia College
Speech Instructor

This year I was given the opportunity to teach at my first post-secondary school. I left a forensics program a forensics program I dedicated the last five years of my life to. The reason: I am working with my former coach, mentor and friend one year before he retires from coaching forensics. My former coach and I have spent hours discussing forensics, debate and team management. This short essay honors my mentor by explaining how his techniques for team building can be used to establish a co-curricular learning community.

First, how is a forensics team a learning community? Learning communities are co-curricular learning groups that use collaboration to promote learners to expand beyond their individual area of study (Kilpatrick, Jones, & Barrett, 2003). As communication faculty, we are uniquely positioned to facilitate learning communities because of our ability to facilitate dyads, small group communication and train speakers (Piland, 2011). As a co-curricular activity with students from a wide variety of majors and study areas, forensics is a model learning community.

Second, a forensics team learning community provides several benefits to its participants. Students who participate in this unique learning community increase their critical thinking skills (Allen, Berkowitz, Hunt & Louden, 1999; Whalen, 1992). Male students who have fallen behind in language arts over the last two decades, learn better when participating in activities like forensics (Gurian & Stevens, 2005). Students of lower class and lower middle class economic backgrounds improve their grades and increase their IQ when participating in co-curricular activities like forensics (Jensen, 2009). The benefits position a forensics team to serve as a model for developing other learning communities.

To establish forensics as a model for other learning communities it is useful to examine successful team building practices. My former coach has been maintaining a learning community on campus for almost forty years. There are several techniques he uses that unify the group, increase their knowledge and performance skills, and maintain a loyal alumni base. Two of his techniques will be examined that can be successfully used for forensics teams and other learning communities.

First, run an open door program. Anyone that wants to learn is given an opportunity to participate. The community college serves a diverse population with many students coming back to school for job retraining due to an unemployment rate in its service area that is consistently above the national average (currently at over 10%) (“Unemployment in the U.S.”, 2012). Thus, many students at the college are utilizing workforce retraining and other incentive programs to attend college. In addition, many students are first generation college students. These two groups view college as a chance to improve their economic standing. My mentor provides an environment where improvement is rewarded more than short term success. He often comments, “It is not where students start the year that is important, it is where they end the year”. The students on the team respond well to this model because they feel empowered by the opportunity to improve.

Based on my former coach’s model, he and I would rather coach a novice student or a debater with limited experience over a high school national champion. This allows inexperienced team members to learn together and bond as a learning community. Newcomers are welcomed and embraced. The group has a permeable barrier. Students that compete in as little as one quarter often maintain a long term connection to the program. For many of the students it is their first chance to find their voice and in some cases students with years of work experience find their voice again.

Second, develop a unique identity for the team. An important part of a learning community is developing a group identity based on common learning goals (Bielaczyc & Collins 1999). My mentor used a team mascot to help students establish a group identity. I utilized a twitter hash tag at my last school. My mentor felt the college’s mascot was not representative of the area the college is in. He branded the forensics team the “Fighting Smelt”, after a small river fish indigenous to the region. The idea of being a “Fighting Smelt” might be absurd to some but he used the mascot to brand the group. The group has “Fighting Smelt” t-shirts, the college tournament is called the Smelt-Classic, top speakers are given smelt coffee mugs and you can find the fighting smelt on Facebook. At one point, the “Fighting Smelt” was even pictured on a race car. Once a smelt, you are always a smelt, and no one will ever be labeled a smelt in another group or community. However, it is more than just a label. The “Fighting Smelt” is a group identity that the team takes pride in.

Running an open door program and establishing a clear team identity are two components to developing a successful forensics team and learning community. It is hard to argue with success. These techniques have produced national champions at the community college and four year level. Learning communities are not only about wins and losses, they are about encouraging group members to learn something outside of their plan of study (Kilpatrick, Jones, & Barrett, 2003). A successful forensics program does just that. That is a model that others can follow to develop other learning communities on campus.


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