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Extemp and Speech in a Small Community: the Struggles and How to Overcome Them

In this article, Cailin Friary takes a deep dive into the realities of speech and debate in small communities without strong debate infrastructures and ways to get involved and improve whether you are a small or big school competitor.

Extemp is different for speakers all across the country. Most speech students have the opportunity to compete at many large tournaments, with lots of opportunities to earn a NIETOC extemp bid. This year, for the first time in years, I competed at one tournament with the possibility of earning a bid. At that specific tournament, there were more than 75 extempers, the most I’ve ever competed with. It was very overwhelming, as I’m not used to competing against many people. From my school, we’ve had 4 extempers in the last few years. Currently, there are two extempers from my school, including me. We practice at the same time, once a week, with one coach. Practice consists of one speech each with critiques afterward.


This year’s tournament varied a lot from tournament to tournament for my school. At the first tournament, the host school had less than 10 students competing in all categories. My school typically brings about 45-50 students, with only two being in extemp. At this tournament, my classmate and I were the only two competing in extemp. The conference my school is in has a lot of schools like this. The area my school is in is declining. People are moving out of these towns and schools and transferring to larger schools, causing bigger teams from suburban schools. My school is an exception, as we are slowly growing. Because of this, schools are beginning to lose good coaches to larger schools. It is becoming harder to find extempers in these communities, and, because of the lack of coaches, it is harder to train new extempers. I myself, while trying to grow in the category, personally worked with a younger, new extemper to help her train into the category. She was from one of these really small schools, and her coach was having a hard time helping her learn.


Another disadvantage we face is the travel time to tournaments. I’ve had to leave at 5:30 in the morning on Saturdays for tournaments that are a long way away. As a debater, early mornings are a part of life. In my experience, early mornings are between 6 and 7 am, not earlier. These tournaments with long travel times are almost always larger contests, presenting a challenge for my smaller school, especially those who are unaware of what lies ahead.


Speech is always adapting and changing. Extemp in my community tends to be an exception. On the national level, changes could be made to incorporate us. We don’t often get to compete against well-trained extempers. I’m from Minnesota, so most of the high-level extempers are from the area around Minneapolis and St. Paul. NASD could be adapted to offer more large scale opportunities based on skill level, not school. This should be applied to every school so that all schools have the same stage, not just larger schools. More recruiting can be done on a widespread basis. The schools in my area almost always just have a speech team, not a debate team. I don’t know of any schools in my area that has a debate team. NASD should be adapted to promote more schools to become involved in debate, not just speech. These inequalities are present in so many smaller and declining areas.


Being from a small speech community isn’t all bad. My team has a sense of pride and representation of our school. Since there aren’t many of us, we have to be each other’s supporters. Since there are only two of us in extemp, we have become good friends. We always encourage each other and build each other up, as we want to see our school succeed.


My advice to others in this situation is to keep fighting. You will have an uphill battle to try and even be able to compete at these tournaments. Work with your coach, they can try and get you into these more challenging competitions. Talk to fellow debaters and extempers from other schools. They can be a great source of new information that you might not get, especially if you don’t have many others in your category. My last and best piece of advice is to research. Watch YouTube videos of students at nationals. Read the headlines and save articles to your resources. Keeping up with current topics will help you stay current, and with that, begin to level the playing field with larger schools.

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