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What would you do?

Students learned how to work under pressure during an event at Harry S Truman High School.
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Students learned how to work under pressure during an event at Harry S Truman High School.

Is it morally justified to sacrifice one person's life to save many others?

Whether or not they agreed, students had to argue both for and against morality puzzles like this one during a weeklong debate workshop at Harry S Truman High School.

About 15 students chose either to face off one-on-one to dispute philosophical topics in the style of the Lincoln-Douglas debates or in teams to debate topics related to U.S. government policies. During the 1858 campaign for an Illinois seat in the U.S. Senate, Abraham Lincoln and Stephen A. Douglas debated each other seven times on issues of the day, including slavery.

The summer camp at Truman, free for Bristol Township students and $50 for others, is a perfect alternative to college debate camps, which can cost hundreds of dollars, said Nicole Pagliaro, a 2009 Truman graduate who said she plans to join the debate team at Bloomsburg University this fall.

The summer workshop was her brainchild, and one she hopes will continue in coming years.

Open to students entering ninth and 10th grade this fall, the workshop drew students from Truman and four other area schools, including Wissahickon High School in Montgomery Township.

"I noticed local schools didn't have strong debaters. I used to be on the debate team at Truman for four years, and I just love to debate," said Pagliaro. "It's all about persuasion, getting others to believe in what you're saying. We're very civil. The students don't yell at their opponents, and they can't take things personally."

Truman student James Traynor said the debate workshop has helped him prepare for college.

"I learned how to dispute arguments and how to be rational. It's better not to get emotional," he said.

On Friday, the final day of the workshop, about 15 students mustered their accumulated knowledge and energies to reason their way through three rounds of a debate tournament. The questions they had to think about were modeled after actual questions posed in nationwide debate tournaments by the National Forensics League, said Pagliaro.

Dressed in business attire, Schnell Washington and Celine Park evoked the musings of philosophers such as Immanuel Kant and Friedrich Nietzsche to argue whether nations should possess nuclear weapons.

Schnell used World War II and the American bombing of Japanese cities in her argument against the weapons. Pagliaro, a four-year veteran of the Truman debate team, judged each student's argument and her critique of her opponent's argument. She told them to challenge their opponents systematically, to take each point and explain why it doesn't make sense.

"I really liked this. I learned lots of philosophy," said Celine.

The key to making a powerful argument is research, so each student had to spend hours last week reading and researching American policy, philosophy and whatever topics teachers assigned them.

"The kids have to go through academic journals, do college level research. Kids who debate arrive in college miles ahead of everyone," said Shawn Eliason, a Truman social studies teacher. The students in his class were debating ways to alleviate poverty. Each team had to choose which aspects of government policies affected the U.S. standard of living.

"The federal government should provide more funding for early education (such as the Head Start program)," said Truman student Dina Abdel-Rahman.

The program provides education from a very early age, and that creates a solid foundation for younger children to learn well in school, Dina said. Then doors will open for those children to get better college educations and better-paying jobs, she added.

"How does that solve poverty for those children now, though?" opponent and Truman student Shirley Pineda asked.

It doesn't alleviate poverty for today's children, Dina responded, "but at least their children won't be in poverty."