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Enabling the young to find a voice on issues

By CHANG JUN in San Francisco | China Daily | Updated: 2021-02-23 10:18
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Editor's note: This news column showcases stories from around the world that bring a touch of positivity to the fight against the deadly coronavirus.

When California announced last March that a stay-in-place order would be adopted to combat the COVID-19 pandemic, Ping Luo's heart sank.

The founder of Able2Shine, an education platform that since 2016 has provided debating and speech training to children from kindergarten to high school, Luo has orchestrated many in-person and on-site programs that require students' close attention and teachers' incidental coaching.

Switching the original model to all-distance learning, Luo recalled, "meant a heavy blow on our school". Shortly after the stay-at-home order, "many small businesses of our size in the same commercial compound permanently closed", she said.

Luo admitted that temporary closure had been an option, given the many lenient assistance programs and incentives the federal and local governments have offered. "Why not take a break, catch breath and prepare for a comeback?" she recalled her thoughts from the time.

However, "my employees made me change my mind", Luo said.

The tough decision of keeping her school up and running was made after "several of my staffers, in their 40s or 50s, came to talk to me sharing their concerns over job security", said Luo. "I came to realize that behind them are their families, mortgages, insurances, self-esteem associated with their talents and enthusiasm to teach."

For the first time in her life, Luo felt a burden of moral responsibility as a business owner.

"I couldn't simply fib that they (employees) are irrelevant," she said. "Then I figured out the real challenges began, that is to retain students and grow the business against all odds."

She repositioned the school to provide only those programs most needed during the pandemic, allocating "our resources by designing many classes to prepare young speakers for national speech and debate tournaments".

Luo also was mindful of the need for children to address issues such as surge in hate crimes against Asian Americans. In California alone, hate incidents against this group have risen by 115 percent in Los Angeles County, 150 percent in San Jose, and 200 percent in Orange County, according to recent CBS reports.

"Over months, our students are following heated topics such as racial inequality, social injustice, citizenship, among others," said Luo. "What our teachers do is to lead them to think deeper, examine more comprehensively, spark their inner passion and ignite their enthusiasm to express themselves."

Daily discussions

To prepare students for tournaments, "our teachers have daily discussions (with students) about current events, and blend philosophy and ideas with debating skills", said Luo.

Mat Marr, who oversees the speech and debate programs at Able2Shine, said: "The most important thing students learn is how to think critically and share our ideas thoughtfully."

On Feb 6, Luo sent her student squad to compete at the 35th annual Stanford National Invitational, a competition of more than 5,000 contestants from 425 organizations in six countries. Her duo-Carrie Lange, a 10th-grader, and her partner Summer Sun-won the novice-level parliamentary debate championship.

Topics of the debate change every round, so the students need to be prepared to think on their feet and make good logical arguments on the spot, said Marr. Besides being well read and well informed on a variety of issues, debaters need to be quick-witted and well organized because the format is highly extemporaneous, and each team has only 20 minutes to prepare after the topic is assigned.

"I'm a very competitive person, and of course I like the adrenaline rush that comes from both debating and competing," said Lange. "During the Stanford debate, we learned so much from our opponents, win or lose."

To Luo, the feeling of fulfillment is not only about the championship her students won, but the social awareness growing among young Asian Americans, and their willingness to bring changes to the world.

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