Forensics: Not what you think
Anny Lin, from Washington High School, makes a point during forensic competition at Sonoma Valley High School.
No, it has nothing to do with the hit TV show, CSI. For Sonoma High’s top-notch forensics team, the label refers to the traditional meanings of the word, forensic – both a form of legal evidence and a category of public presentation.
For more than 30 years, Sonoma High has boasted a very successful forensics elective class and extra-curricular competitive team, coached by Janet Hansen. This debate team is comprised of students of every grade, this year 20 in all. The team competes at a half dozen or more speech or debate tournaments each year against other Northern California high schools, ultimately seeking a spot at the State Championship tournament. Sonoma High’s forensics and mock trial teams are closely connected. Six members of the current forensics class compete on both teams.
Last Saturday, if you were trying to get a parking spot at the high school, you were likely out of luck. Sonoma hosted an annual league tournament of 500 high school debaters and another 150 adults there as judges, spectators and coaches. As with sports, competition locations rotate around different Bay Area high schools. This was a medium-sized competition for the league but a big deal for Sonoma High. It is both an honor and, thanks to fees and concessions, quite a profitable venture to host a tournament. While headquartered in the school’s library, almost every room at Sonoma High was used, plus most of those at adjoining Adele Harrison. As hosts, few Sonoma debaters actually competed, most were busy helping feed the almost 750 people from 6:30 a.m. until evening, helping people find rooms and solving problems that came up.
The team depends heavily on its parent volunteers and donations from local businesses, such as Homegrown Bagels and the Basque Boulangerie, both of which Hansen said have been very generous to the team over the years. The high school Boosters have been a huge supporter as well, to both Forensics and Mock Trial.
In competition, students enter specific categories that include advocacy, original oratory, persuasion, informative, special occasional speaking, impromptu speaking, story telling or a dozen other categories. The topics under discussion Saturday: whether or not the U.S. federal government should increase its exploration of space; whether individuals have a moral obligation to help others in need; the recognition of animal rights; a resolution to abolish the U.S. Postal Service; a resolution to support Palestinian statehood; and the funding of the construction of offshore wind turbines. These are teens that you definitely wouldn’t mind being seated next to at an adult dinner party.
When asked if forensics attracts a particular kind of student, Hansen said, “Forensics students tend to be funny, creative, sharp, and challenging. Beyond that, they are an extremely diverse group – lots of times we have the valedictorian, but we also have students who are underachievers in other areas. Students with traditional school success skills do well, but need to learn to be dynamic oral communicators. Some kids who have struggled a bit in school, but are articulate and funny, can get a taste of success and then realize that the addition of academic work will bring even more success.”
In this world, the NFL stands for the National Forensic League, a non-partisan, nonprofit educational society established to encourage and motivate American high school students to compete in the forensic arts: debate, public speaking and interpretation. Its motto is “training youth for leadership.” The word is derived from the Latin word forensis, meaning “of the forum.” While forensics starts in high school, most selective colleges boast an impressive competitive team as well.
Since Hansen has been coaching, she has sent students to the state qualifying competition each year, and eight of her students have gone as far as the state championships. The team raves about their coach. Said, sophomore Marissa Medel, “Mrs. Hansen is really entertaining and just so nice! She really cares about forensics and helps each of us to do our best.”
The time commitment for forensics can be considerable. “Between competitions, I probably spend two-and-a-half hours a day preparing and practicing,” said junior John Engebreth. But as a result, he said, he has become more comfortable presenting and has gained greater research skills.
Barbara Hall has been impressed by all that her son, junior Sean Hall, gained from the elective. “Sean’s forensics’ experiences have significantly helped shape him, probably more than any other academic course he’s taken, into a self confident person, and has also enhanced his passion for current events and international affairs,” she said. But Engebreth’s simple answer for his favorite aspect of forensics? “Winning!”
Hansen laughed over the misconception about what forensics is, but related a moving tale, “One of our most successful past competitors had ADD and trouble staying quiet in classroom desks. He took the class because he thought it was about autopsies, and being a freshman he did not know how to drop the class. He ended up going to the state championships and became captain of the team.”