As the Nashville Catholic Middle School Forensics League heads toward the 30th anniversary of its founding in the 2020-21 school year, league officials have growth on their minds.
Joe Zanger, director of the league, wants to see a forensics team in every middle school in the diocese and is seeking parents with special skill sets to help make that happen.
This is not the forensics carried out in crime scene investigations but forensics in the spirit of Daniel Webster, Thomas Payne and other speech makers, debaters and dramatic presenters. Zanger, an attorney, said that every school claiming “academic rigor” cannot be without forensics, an activity that requires much from both the students and parents.
“It’s parent-intensive,” he said, noting that parents not only drive the students to tournaments, but judge and listen for hours on end to their children rehearse.
The lack of coaches is the biggest obstacle for establishing teams in the schools. Zanger is asking parents to become involved because teachers, who traditionally have coached, are so over-stretched with duties, and simply can’t step up to take on another role.
Additionally, Zanger said, “The parents have to buy into it.” Therefore, finding parents interested in coaching is a natural solution. St. Joseph, where Zanger is the head coach, has three coaches and none of them are teachers.
“First, you need to be comfortable herding cats,” said Zanger of the number one quality needed to corral a team of fifth, sixth, seventh and eighth graders who may be painfully shy, especially talkative, or overly dramatic.
The next quality is that of an uplifter, one who is constantly encouraging, even in uninspired moments. “You can’t say anything discouraging, especially with the younger kids. It’s such a personal interpretation of what they’re doing. There’s no right way or wrong way,” he said.
It’s also helpful to be a good organizer and to be open to an occasional dose of humility. Zanger said sometimes students just have to work through their process of interpretation, which may be contrary to the coach’s advice and, at times, works out better.
He, along with coaches from teams at the 11 schools currently in the league – St. Bernard Academy, Nashville; St Rose of Lima, Murfreesboro; St. Joseph, Madison; St. Ann, Nashville; Sacred Heart, Lawrenceburg; St. John Vianney, Gallatin; St. Matthew, Franklin; St. Henry, Nashville; Overbrook School, Nashville, and Christ the King, Nashville – are so committed to the benefits of forensics that this spring, they are making a push to recruit more schools. They hope to ring in the league’s 30th year with a greater appreciation for the art.
That is Zanger’s main goal, having taken over a year ago following the 13-year tenure of Chris Melton, who remains a coach at Holy Rosary Academy. An attorney in White House, Zanger began coaching at St. Joseph in 2006 when his son was on the team. The growth the coaches see in the students each year keeps them coming back. Most coaches, he said, have been coaching at least 10 years.
The benefits of being involved in forensics are life-long, according to Zanger.
“There’s no downside to forensics,” he said. “They do a whole lot better on college interviews. They (former students) tell us forensics taught them how to lead.”
Each type of presentation teaches and emphasizes special skills such as research, memorization, and critical thinking, as well as self-awareness, awareness of others, refining the thought process, and articulation of ideas.
“Every coach can tell you stories of fifth graders who discovered themselves (through forensics) and developed confidence and courage.”
Seeing the students blossom is the hook for Zanger and other coaches, and he is does not hesitate to say what coaching means to him, having seen how countless students have grown over the years.
“This is the most important thing I’ve ever done,” Zanger said.
Students who study forensics have no difficulty carrying on conversations with adults and are often chosen for leadership roles. Not only are they chosen, they step up for leadership roles. Many of them lead small groups at SEARCH retreats, the diocesan faith formation program for teens. And the students asked to fill in at the last minute when a young lector doesn’t show at the student Mass are usually forensics scholars because the teachers know they can handle a quick study and presentation.
Students tackle 14 different types of presentations, four of which are as part of a team so the students learn how to work both on their own, as part of a duo, and as a member of a larger ensemble. Beginning students are always paired with a partner.
Some of the categories include audition, declamation, dramatic interpretation, duo acting, duo improvisation, humorous interpretation, original oratory, pantomime, and poetry interpretation.
Students are drawn to forensics, Zanger said, because they like to be part of a team and enjoy the competition. Although many of the students are athletes, it’s also an outlet for non-athletes and shyer students to find their own voice and confidence. Some of the students have even been bullied in the past, and they develop courage to speak up for themselves.
Zanger keeps testimonials from coaches to share with people as a way to explain how forensics has buoyed students. Katie Carney at St. Rose said that Ana Klukowski, now a student at the University of Michigan, said forensics gave her the confidence to give her 30-minute senior honors thesis presentation in front of students, teachers and parents, and teachers noted her poise speaking to a group. She also said that her impromptu event skills helped her think on her feet and confidently answer questions during college interviews.
Chris Melton at Holy Rosary Academy recalled how the pantomime study helped Audrey Hill cope with the sadness she experienced when her father was deployed. Melton said that she “turned her worries into a pantomime piece and was able to express her sadness and share her story with many. It helped her cope with her grief, and it also opened the door to others who shared their similar stories.”
The forensics league, which was founded by Carolyn Baker with 80 students, now has more than 200 students. Zanger credits past president Melton with changes that increased opportunities for students to participate and receive recognition:
• She streamlined the time of tournaments by eliminating the third round and making it possible for students to participate in forensics and other activities.
• She established a score no lower than 82.
• She increased the recognition for the top six students rather than the top three.
• She worked with the diocesan athletic office to arrange schedules to make it possible for students to compete in the forensics league then compete in athletics.
• She honored her predecessor by establishing the Carolyn Baker Award given at each tournament to the school that places the highest percentage of its competitors into the top three finishers in the categories the school has entered.
Anyone who wishes to see forensics in action has three more opportunities this school year. Competitions are scheduled for Saturday, Feb. 1, at Overbrook School; Saturday, Feb. 22, Coaches’ Choice at Holy Rosary; and Saturday, March 8, the Championship Finals at St. Ann School.
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