“In my math class, I sat next to Genevieve Griffin, and all of a sudden I’m into pop music and talk like I’m from California. In my English class, I sat next to Noah Cassil, and now I’m an expert in the NFL, CFL, XFL, and AFL. I tried on new personalities like a model trying on outfits at fashion week. This trend of having a revolving door of personas was called into question once I got into 7th Grade. We were in my school’s Black Affinity group which was one of the few places I felt like I didn’t have to put on a mask and I told the group about my personality wardrobe with even a bit of pride in my voice. Then our faculty sponsor asked me something: “Which personality is the real you?” I was stunned because I did not know.”
Sitting in the back of his classroom, English Teacher Scott Carneal P ’09, ’11, ’17 stops Temi Abiona ’23 during the delivery of his Original Oratory speech. Scott shares constructive criticism while Temi’s fellow students nod, adding their comments. “Slow down that last part. It’s powerful, and when you’re at Nationals, the judges need to feel the impact of it,” Scott advises.
It’s the week before the nascent Speech and Debate program at Sandy Spring Friends School (SSFS) sends multiple students to a National tournament for which they’ve qualified, and Temi is one of them. The firstborn child of Nigerian immigrants, Temi wrote this speech about code switching—the practice of alternating between styles of language in conversation in order to make life easier, fit in, or get ahead—for the Original Oratory category, for which the student writes and delivers an original speech. Having entered SSFS as a self-proclaimed “reserved” 6th Grader, even he is sometimes surprised by what he now finds himself doing—especially in its rather public vulnerability.
Speaking of surprises, one might consider the entire program’s almost instant success just that. As the School completes only its second full year of Speech, it has emerged as a force to be reckoned with, showcasing the talent, dedication, and above all, the incredible growth of its students. They are, as SSFS’ motto dictates, Letting Their Lives Speak.
Speaking of Beginnings: The Program Launches
Scott, an English Teacher with a 22-year tenure at SSFS and the founder and driving force behind the recently-launched program, reflects on his motivation. "It was spring of 2021, and sports were still on hold due to the pandemic. Speech was a hybrid activity we could do.” One of the students involved from those early days, Suutumee Negash ’24, remembers, “It was tough at the beginning: during the virtual tournaments, you couldn’t be in the same room as your partner, even while [in the Duo Interpretation category] you were performing a speech together!”
Scott was undeterred. “I wanted to find a home for kids who had none. With Speech, if you want to be involved, you’re involved—unlike some other activities, there’s no limit to how many students can compete, at least in the regional tournaments," he explains. “I also wanted to allow those who have multiple interests—at SSFS kids tend to do a lot of different things—to have this opportunity." Scott emphasizes that co-curricular activities—whether it be Speech and Debate Team, Quiz Bowl, or a variety of other opportunities—are instrumental in nurturing students’ self esteem. "Activities like Speech and Debate become the bread and butter for feeding kids’ confidence," he adds. “Speech and Debate is one model of how we can build kids up—that’s our sweet spot at SSFS.”
Scott's personal background in speech and debate and his related experience as an athletic coach and drama director throughout his career as an educator—a career spanning 40 years and eight schools across three states—further motivated him to establish the program. He is quick to recognize SSFS students’ natural talent in the arts and is determined to showcase their abilities on a national stage. "None of our students are classic speech and debate kids, but they’re comfortable talking, and I just knew they’d be good at it," Scott notes. “I regret not starting the program earlier!” Further fueling his belief in their potential, the Socratic methodology employed throughout SSFS’ humanities courses helps students become more at ease with public speaking. Once Scott scheduled an in-house speech competition in May 2021, the program was off to the races, so to speak.
Speaking of Recruiting: Building the Program
Right from the start, Scott sought guidance and support from Our Lady of Good Counsel, a high school with a well-established program located just five minutes' drive from SSFS. Scott credits Good Counsel, including Head Coach Chuck Ehrman, with generously providing invaluable mentorship and practice opportunities. “They were really kind and provided me with tons of mentoring. They did scrimmages with our kids, Zooming with us during that first spring when we were just an in-house program. The access to their kids inspired our students, since Good Counsel is the reigning state champion and has been for about 30 years in a row—they’ve got 70-80 kids involved,” Scott shares.
Crucial support was also provided by Administrative Assistant Karen Vincent P ’24, who has a background in acting and Speech and Debate and has volunteered as a coach since the program's inception. “Having Karen as a Co-Coach made a huge impact,” Scott remarks. “She traveled, coached, and judged at over 12 competitions throughout the season.” And, the newly-minted program had to recruit and train parent judges because every tournament requires five to six volunteer judges, a ratio based on the number of competitors a school enters. “Our parents have been incredible,” Scott praises.
Finding student participants came naturally to Scott. “Scott’s a hard campaigner,” laughs Greta Garrettson-Taylor ’24, “He’s very on the ball when it comes to recruiting students for Speech and Debate.” With many students unfamiliar with the activity, and others thoroughly intimidated by the idea of writing their own speeches or competing in front of an audience, he employed creative strategies to pique their interest. "I’ll sometimes have hot chocolate and treats ready for practice time," Scott shares with a smile. He also observed students' performances in plays and sought recommendations from fellow English teachers—the 9th-grade project which involves students recording their oral interpretations proves particularly helpful for scouting. “And sometimes I’ll just hear kids in the hall who are really witty and encourage them to try it,” Scott adds.
Speaking of Approaches: SSFS’ Innovative Framework for Speech and Debate
One of the hallmarks of the SSFS Speech and Debate program is its emphasis on independence and student empowerment. Scott allows students to choose their own pieces and encourages collaboration and peer coaching. He commends the program’s captains for their selfless leadership, including Eva Derryberry '24, who “has been a stupendous Co-Captain, assistant coach, and speech and piece editor.” Another of the team’s captains, Elise Robertson ’23, shares, “There’s space for a lot of different people in Speech. Take me…I’m not an actor. And it’s not just about competition; there are also opportunities to help people find pieces and coach them—I’ve really enjoyed this aspect.”
"My approach is different in terms of the types of speeches we do, too," Scott explains. "I want the kids to do beautifully written pieces, focusing on literary works and age-appropriate topics related to contemporary culture. At competitions, it’s common to hear a 14-year-old delivering a speech about rape, incest, or drug abuse, probably because the student thinks the shock value will be powerful." In contrast, Scott aims to foster a love of literary works and artistry. Torch Clerk [the head of Upper School Student Government] Clara Shapiro ’23 reflects, “Scott treats Speech as an art form, not competitive acting like many other schools do. We pick different material than other schools, even though that sometimes hurts how we do in competitions.” According to Diego Zein ’25, however, it’s not about winning. “We’re doing this because we love it, not for the glory.”
Speaking of Competition: SSFS Has Successful Showing at 2023 Nationals
Roughly ten to fifteen percent of students involved in Speech and Debate qualify for Nationals. Usually, a student qualifies by placing in the top five at a preliminary (regional) tournament. In only the second year of having a Speech and Debate program, nine of the SSFS’ 40 participants qualified. And over Memorial Day weekend, seven of those students (three speech students: Taye Bradford ’24, Diego Zein ’25, and Temi Abiona ’23, and four debate students comprising two teams: Daryan Tchoubineh ’24–Alexios Eleftheriou ’25 and Dylan Rose ’24–Max Koprivica ’25), as well as five dedicated parent volunteer judges, traveled to Louisville, Kentucky for the National Catholic Forensic League’s (NCFL) Grand National Tournament. (Cameron Tollefson ’23 and Janaan as Siddiqui ’25 also qualified but were not able to attend.)
Among the program’s numerous successes in Louisville, the Public Forum (debate) team of Daryan and Alexios placed 44th out of 181 teams with their 10-5 record, positioning them in the top 2% in the country. How was Temi’s original speech about code switching received at Nationals? From the original pool of more than 2,000 students competing in local tournaments in what is regarded as a highly competitive category (Original Oratory), Temi competed in seven grueling rounds over two days in Louisville. He made it through the Top 48 Round, Quarterfinals, and then to the Semifinals, performing in front of more than 100 people in the final two rounds.
Speaking of Development: Students Grow Through Speech and Debate
The program's recent success at Nationals indicates the students' tremendous achievement, but its true success goes far deeper than any competition or award. Each student we spoke with mentioned being stretched and challenged to grow in their craft. Julia May ’24 explains, “I’ve been involved in theater, and even though the Dramatic category is similar to acting, I’ve enjoyed the challenge of bringing nuance to one long performance that only I can hold down—I have to be able to play multiple characters at once.”
Scott is incredibly proud of the progress his students have made. "They've all become such excellent speakers," he shares. "They've found their voices, and they know how to communicate clearly and persuasively. Temi reflects, "Speech and debate has changed the way I communicate with others and how I express myself. It's given me confidence to speak up and share my ideas."
The program has not only honed the students' speaking skills—it’s fostered their appreciation for literature and their writing ability, as well. Scott continues, “The English Department is particularly proud of the students involved in Original Oratory, because it’s a little harder to both write and perform a speech—I’m thrilled that next year we have eight students in that category!" If you’re wondering about the other seven categories students choose among, Scott has seen growth throughout. “I’m also thrilled by the group of students who had almost no acting background or known involvement in the arts but were quiet readers and quiet writers; they not only competed, but they’ve really flourished in class. They share more of their ideas during group discussions…and they sometimes place in the top five at competitions!”
Speaking of Next Steps: “The Future is Bright”
Looking ahead, Scott has ambitious plans to expand the program. He envisions identifying a dedicated debate coach—Daryan Tchoubineh ’24 concurs with this need, while giving credit to his coach. “Debate is pretty separate from speech because of its nature—you’re competing against another person. Scott isn’t a ‘debate-y’ kind of guy, yet he’s a huge reason for our success—case in point, this is SSFS’ first year doing debate, and I made it to Nationals! For all 40 people involved in speech and debate, he’s been there for anything we need.”
Scott also hopes to branch out to competitions outside of the Catholic Forensic League and at least three large invitational tournaments hosted at universities like George Mason to expose students to a broader competitive landscape. And, he looks forward to continuing to compete with SSFS’ established powerhouse mentor Good Counsel.
Returning to Scott’s room to watch fellow Speech and Debate students rehearse and exchange feedback, Greta appropriately concludes, “The future is bright!”