Community Debate Program Inspires Students


Mary Sparacello


Maggie Downes, Liberal Arts '13

You might say that Aristotle persuaded Maggie Downes (LA ’13) to become a teacher.

Downes was a sophomore at Tulane University when she took the service-learning course, Aristotle in New Orleans, and started coaching debate at an underperforming New Orleans middle school.

At first the task seemed herculean. Many of her students couldn’t read at grade level and were required to join the debate club because they were failing English or language arts classes. How could she teach them to make cohesive, persuasive arguments?

But she was eager to coach, and the students were excited to learn. “Their performance steadily improved,” Downes remembers. By the next year, the young debaters at Sophie B. Wright Charter School had advanced so much that they out-debated students at some of the city’s top public schools and took first place in a citywide debate tournament. “It was really amazing.”

The experience inspired Downes to join Teach for America. She teaches special education to first and second graders at Donaldsonville Primary School, located in a small town about an hour from New Orleans.


Her Tulane professor, Ryan McBride, says service-learning courses can give students deep insights into the course subject matter while making deliberate and substantial contributions to the community.

Rhetoric and ethics, which are the core issues of his Aristotle in New Orleans course, “are not purely intellectual” says McBride. “Classical thinking on these subjects is aimed at action. Just talking about them is like just talking about pianos but never actually playing one. These subjects need to be practiced to be appreciated and coaching debate in New Orleans public schools gives my students a challenging and important context for action and reflection.”

His students currently coach debate at five inner-city middle schools.

Service learning at Tulane changed Downes’ life. She never considered a career in education until she started coaching debate. “Four years ago, I didn’t really care about school at all,” she says. “To be completely honest, I’m not sure I cared about much of anything. I was a straight A student entering a prestigious university on a presidential scholarship, and I had never even thought about why I was there. I was simply going through the motions. What happened? The debate program happened.”


McBride explains that “over the course of the semester Tulane students, like Maggie, see the middle school debaters make immense progress—they help them learn to think on their feet, gain confidence in their intellectual abilities and start to find their own voices. And that’s extremely rewarding.”

The service is something that sticks with the Tulane students long after the class is over. And many coaches continue to do it for as long as they can. Maggie volunteered to coach debate at Sophie B. Wright every semester for two and a half years after her service-learning course was over.

Now a Tulane graduate, Downes is committed to carrying forward her Tulane experience by training her young students to think critically.

“If you make an assertion, you must back it up with reasoning and evidence,” Downes says. “That is applicable at every age.”

Mary Sparacello is a writer in the Office of Development.

Programs like the Tulane Debate Society are part of what makes a Tulane education exciting and unique. The School of Liberal Arts offers the majority of service-learning classes at the university and they partner with the Center for Public Service to ensure that the debate service-learning experience continues. The generosity of Tulane alumni and friends is vital to our ability to offer such meaningful opportunities to our students. Please consider supporting the School of Liberal Arts.



Tulane University, School of Liberal Arts, 102 Newcomb Hall, New Orleans, LA  70118, (504) 865-5225,