Sean Duff has only been a head debate coach at Lansing High School for a year but 2019 has become a memorable year for him and debate students Maddie Atkins and Salem Clemens.


Sean Duff has only been a head debate coach at Lansing High School for a year but 2019 has become a memorable year for him and debate students Maddie Atkins and Salem Clemens.

The high school has won the KSHSAA 5A state two-speaker debate championship and took second in four-speaker debate. Maddie and Salem are the two-speaker team state champions.

Sean was a teacher and on the debate coaching staff for three years before taking over as head debate coach.
“This is our first state championship in debate since I’ve been here,” says Sean. “We have earned state runners-up in 2018, 2017 and 2016, but this is Lansing’s first state championship in debate since 1997, and the first two-speaker championship Lansing has ever won.”

He is particularly proud of Maddie and Salem and says they are incredibly talented debaters. The duo complement each other well. Building and finding creative strategies against different positions on a particular topic is the area in which Salem excels, while Maddie is described as exceptionally logical and level-headed.
“He likes to prepare for unlikely, occasionally outlandish circumstances in debate rounds and then try to steer the rounds toward those circumstances,” says Sean. “Maddie keeps her cool and knows how to quickly identify weaknesses in arguments. It helps the two prepare well together because Maddie is quick to throw cold water on Salem’s ideas when they get a little too out there.”
Talent in reasoning and persuasion are important in honing debating skills. Sean says anyone who has these talents and combines them with hard work or dedication can be a good debater.

“But to become a great debater students have to possess all three. Like any highly competitive activity, if you aren’t continually refining your craft and practicing, people that you are debating will outperform you,” he said.
Learning to question and challenge what they are hearing and learning is what Sean enjoys the most about his job. Thinking critically about new information helps students own what they learn, says Sean, and it makes the classroom more engaging and energetic.

“And it keeps me on my toes as a teacher,” he said.
Salem has participated in debate all four years of high school and got interested in debate because most of his middle school teachers convinced him that he would be good at it.

He loves the feeling of accomplishment after winning a debate that took months of hard work to prepare for.
As far as coming out on top when debating someone, Salem says it comes down to knowing more about the subject and working harder than your opponents. When he prepares, he give practice speeches and researches new arguments.
“Mr. Duff taught me quite literally everything I know about debate. There’s probably no single most important thing he has taught me since it’s all come together to help me become better,” says Salem.

When he won the state championship, he felt very satisfied. It had been one of his biggest goals since he was a freshman four years ago.
“Debate has greatly increased my research, public speaking and critical thinking skills,” says Salem.

Maddie’s older brothers were debaters and got her interested in it. She has been practicing debate for both of her years in high school.
“My favorite thing about debate is going to the tournaments,” says Maddie. “We get to go to different places and meet different people. Additionally, we get to hear different arguments, which is fun. Our secret to winning debates is to read a lot of unique arguments that other teams won’t expect.”
She prepares for competitions by doing research and practicing speeches and debates with her team.

“Mr. Duff has helped me in becoming a better debater by giving a lot of feedback and watching a lot of practice debates and speeches. He has taught me many important things. It felt awesome when we won the state championship. It was a great experience,” she said.
Sean was most impressed by Maddie’s and Salem’s commitment and focus during the state championship. They spent their time between rounds preparing for the different teams they could face in the next round, gathering information on what those teams read and putting together different strategies that might appeal to different judges.
“The state tournament is a slog,” says Sean. “Maddie and Salem competed in 10 rounds in two days. Their last round finished at 12:30 a.m. They kept their eyes on the prize from round one until finals. I felt confident in their preparation and their success throughout the season. The two of them had been working hard and really seemed to be hitting their stride before the state tournament. I knew there were a lot of talented teams competing, and different judges are persuaded by different arguments. Given all that uncertainty, I still felt confident that the two of them had put themselves in the best situation to win it all.”

Sean believes the best thing a person can do in a debate is be mindful of all of the arguments being made on both sides. He says staying consistent in your position and recognizing inconsistencies in your opponent’s position is a surefire way to not only win debates, but also make sure you’re arguing against someone in good faith.
“People that want to disagree instead of debate will often contradict themselves,” he said. “The worst thing you can do in a debate is assume your opponent is wrong about everything. Having respect for your opponent means recognizing the merit of their arguments, even when you don’t agree with them. Failing to do so will keep you from accurately assessing and responding to their arguments.”
Salem will graduate in May, but is still pondering what he will choose as a career.
“I would like to major in public policy analysis or maybe political science,” says Salem. “I’m interested in politics, law, public policy or maybe marine biology.”
He is impressed with the style and talent of many debaters but most admires Nate Martin (an assistant coach at Lansing, a Lansing High School alumnus and current debater at the University of Kansas), Lauren Sjoberg, Brett Bricker (debate coach at the University of Kansas), and Chris Carey (an assistant coach at Lansing and former debater at the University of Kansas).
Maddie is unsure what she will study in college but is leaning toward law, math or science.

She is certain that she will continue in debate in her junior and senior years and perhaps follow in the footsteps of one of her favorite debaters.
“One of the most impressive debaters to me is Quaram Robinson who debated for KU last year,” she said.

She believes debate will help her considerably in life.
“It will help me to have better researching and argumentative skills. Additionally, it will help me to develop better public speaking skills,” she said.
Sean observes and studies debating methods not only among his students and their competitors, but also looks to popular culture and news programs to watch people discussing important issues. He says Stephen Colbert, host of “The Late Show,” stands out to him as someone that effectively reads the audience and presents his arguments in appealing ways.

“I watched his show growing up and often saw him as having a really clever debate strategy with people he would interview, especially since he was interviewing in character,” he said. “It often meant he would flatter and agree with people in satirical ways. I think it was a brilliant debate tactic for the time and the medium. In more traditional debate settings Neal Katyal, U.S. Solicitor General from 2010-2011, stands out to me as an excellent debater. Not only was Katyal an incredibly talented collegiate debater, he went on to argue successfully in front of the Supreme Court and shape many of the legal guidelines for the executive branch.”
The coach believes that debate helps students learn how to prepare and respond to challenges throughout their lives.

“The activity forces students to anticipate what other teams will say and plan their responses to those arguments,” he said. “When students face an argument they haven’t prepared for, they have to be ready to rely upon research they have done and quickly identify problems with the argument in front of them. I think this combination of preparation and spontaneous response to the unexpected are absolutely necessary in life.”