Besides being a mother of three, Audrey Israel is passionate about coaching debate. She founded Prestige Debate in January 2019, after she was asked by the parents of a group of students she coached at Oak Park High School as part of its Debate Club founded in 2015.
“I think the most important thing I do for the kids is make them think, question what people say and see both sides of an argument. That is what debate allows you to do, and it really allows you to get out of your comfort zone,” Israel said.
Israel has been judging debate competitions since 2009 when her older son was in 7th grade and began debating himself. The following year, her 5th grade twins decided to get involved and began taking classes in debate as well, as Israel wanted them to do something more intellectually demanding, rather than playing video games.
“So they started competing and going to competitions throughout middle school, and they loved it. It is really intellectually demanding for kids, they have to do research and write their own cases and they learn so much from it,” Israel said.
Later, when her kids entered high school and tried to form a debate team, it was difficult to find a teacher that could fully commit not only to the teaching aspect of debate, but also to the time and effort of weekend tournaments. Israel’s twins therefore asked her if she would volunteer for the position, and she gladly accepted. The Oak Park High School Debate Team went from 11 founding members in 2015 to 43 members in 2019.
“When my twins were in their senior year of high school, a mother approached me and wanted me to teach the middle school kids debate,” Israel said. “I had been teaching high schoolers, so this was something new for me, but I wrote a program geared toward younger kids, and I just started teaching,” Israel said.
Israel started out teaching an eight-week course, but the group moved quickly. As a result of their hard work, Israel and her middle school students were able to attend a high school tournament, and every student won at least two out of six rounds.
“People were coming up to me asking me how I did it and what I taught them, but I think that human beings perform to expectations, and I believe that kids are so much smarter than many adults give them credit for. This is why I expect a lot from them, and I interact a lot with them. Some might think that this is too much for them, but none of them do, and the parents love it,” Israel said.
Israel teaches beginning, intermediate, and competitive debate classes, and all the courses are about eight weeks long. This summer, she is hosting “Smart Camp Summer 2020”, an online summer camp focusing on debate, speech, current events, and Introduction to the Law. Topics covered in all the courses include nuclear power, national service, fossil fuel, handguns, and the electoral college. Furthermore, Israel aims to include topics from all parts of the world, and has therefore structured her summer camp program to include topics ranging from local to international news.
“We will talk about local news on Monday, state news on Tuesday, national news on Wednesday, international news on Thursday, and then on Friday, we choose a topic and prepare for and host a mini debate, where each student presents their own case. We then usually tie up all the news and let the kids drive the discussion if they want to,” Israel said.
Forming debate groups and coaching them comes with challenges. Israel said the reasons why many schools are hesitant to organize programs like this is because it comes with a lot of work, including working weekends and liability. In her opinion, public schools are especially concerned with the liability portion of having these programs for younger students because of the traveling required for competitions. However, Israel has never had any problems when traveling with her students.
“I treat every kid like they were my own kid. If someone is having a bad day, is not ready, or have not done the homework, I tell them that even though it is demanding it is supposed to be fun, and they need to let me know if there is anything wrong,” Israel said. “On the other hand, if a student loves a topic, I always let them be the first student to go.”
Regarding the lack of debate groups in the Ventura County area, Israel said that debate is often considered a private school activity, and debate teams are rarely formed in public schools. This was one of her main motivations for starting Prestige Debate Academy, because she felt like young students were missing out on what she saw as an amazing opportunity. Today, Israel has not only founded and coached students at Oak Park High School’s Debate Club, but she has also helped students at Rancho Campagna, Westlake High School, and Agoura High School create debate programs or develop existing programs.
“When I teach debate, I want the kids to think, and to think beyond themselves. The other thing about debate that I love is how there is no right or wrong answer. In a debate you can take, for example, animal testing, which we talked about a few weeks ago, and discuss COVID-19, where human beings are dying. So, if killing a hundred animals could save a thousand human lives, is it then worth it or is it morally reprehensible? We then discuss the situation back and forth, and weigh out the options,” Israel said.
After being introduced to the topics in class, Israel said many of the kids get very invested in the topics and bring the conversations home to the dinner table. She has received several comments from parents who tell her that their kids bring up topics they have discussed in class at home, wanting to further discuss them with their parents.
“The way you present yourself, the way you are standing, the volume of your voice and how you are looking at others is very important for how you get your message across, and many people just do not speak with confidence, or they are very boring speakers. This is why I believe debate is such good practice for the students, because it teaches them how to speak with confidence in front of small groups or large crowds,” Israel said.
Passionate about her profession, Israel welcomes emails or phone calls from parents who are curious about debate, even if they are not sure if their child is ready. She is available during all waking hours, at email@example.com or (818) 317-0305.