Coaching middle-school students to excel in an area that many people cite as their most dreaded activity – public speaking – takes heart, skill and prayers. forensicsThe St. Monica School state champion middle school debate team poses in the school library in Whitefish Bay last April. They are from left, front row: Anna Flemm, Rachel Rice, Anne Rice, the coach and Rachel’s mother, and Savannah Vega Schwartz. In the back row are Katie O’Brien, Joey McBride, Owen Sinsky, Stefan Schallack and Sarah Herbers. The state meet was held at Oconomowoc High School last March. (Catholic Herald photo by Ernie Mastroianni)

At least that’s what one parent from St. Monica School, Whitefish Bay, has seen demonstrated by the school’s forensics coach, Anne Rice.

Last March, Rice guided the team to a first-place win at the Middle Level Forensics Association (MFLA) state tournament at Oconomowoc High School.

Rice’s faith, forensics knowledge and positive approach “are incredibly positive influences on the kids,” said Norma Herbers, whose daughter Sarah was on the team.

The state meet involved 80 schools and more than 1,400 students. St. Monica’s eight-member team of sixth, seventh and eighth-graders competed against public and private schools The larger schools’ teams had more than 90 participants, said Sarah Lichey, director of the MFLA state tournament.

Because of her talent and commitment, Rice received the retiring coach award from MFLA at the state meet, recognizing her 10-plus years as a coach in the organization, Lichey said.

“It takes a lot of work and time to coach. You have to truly love doing it,” Lichey noted, “and Anne does this all as a parent volunteer. She is very dedicated and is always willing to help in any way.”

Forensics teaches life skills

Rice said she has thoroughly enjoyed her time working with the students.

“Forensics teaches an important life skill, and it’s fun,” she said.

She compared forensics to the sport of cross country because “you work independently but are supported by your team.”

Rice became involved with St. Monica’s forensics program as an assistant coach when her older daughters, now ages 23 and 21, were in the middle-school grades. Rachel, her youngest daughter, graduated from St. Monica last spring and is a freshman at Dominican High School. The past forensics season was Rice’s last as the coach, but she said she is willing to help the new coach, if needed.

Herbers described Rice as “completely dedicated, enthusiastic and uplifting,” and sees her as a positive role model for the teens.

“Anne demonstrates Christian values in her coaching style. She’ll talk to the kids about using God’s gifts to them. And she prays for them when they’re being judged,” Herbers added.

When coaching, Rice said she reminds the kids that they are not just reading; they are proclaiming a message and they are inspiring an audience.

Some students become lectors

With these skills, “one nice benefit is that some who had been on the middle-school forensics team have become lectors at St. Monica’s Sunday Masses,” Rice said. “As high school and college students, they’ve really embraced that ministry, and the congregation likes seeing the young people.”

Rice notes that the maturity of children in the middle-school years can span a broad range.

“It’s something I keep in mind as a coach,” she said. “Through forensics, with all the practicing and the competing, the kids learn to take criticism and grow from that by making adjustments.”

Another element of her coaching technique is to use peer reviews so teammates give each other suggestions and praise.

Students select from a variety of categories in which to compete, such as prose, poetry, storytelling and persuasive speech. St. Monica’s team began practicing their pieces in November, and attended meets in February and March.

Rice is proud to see her team support students from other schools during a meet.

“In this day of texting, I’m happy to see the kids meet someone new and tell them in person that they did a good job,” she said.

Coach was former participant

Rice understands how excited and anxious students can feel at a meet; she participated in forensics during fifth through eighth grades at St. Eugene School in Fox Point.

“My father encouraged me; he saw it as an important life skill,” Rice said.

While attending Dominican High School, she was head of the forensics team and started the school’s debate team. Rice also debated for a few years as a student at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire and University of Minnesota-Twin Cities.

Now, as the first teens she coached at St. Monica’s enter their 20s, Rice hears from them that participating in forensics gave them an edge when making presentations in college and when interviewing for jobs.

“I believe in the value of being able to communicate your ideas,” Rice said. “Forensics inspires the kids to take greater risks. It gives them confidence.”

Julie Ann Robinson, principal of St. Monica, also sees firsthand the value of offering public speaking opportunities to middle-school students.

“Forensics helps students become comfortable speaking in front of others and they learn how to address a group,” she said. “That’s a valuable asset for students to take with them into the future.”

Trophy-winning team full of spirit

Bringing home the first-place team trophy from state was a thrilling end to Rice’s final season. “We had a good team and lots of team spirit,” she said.

At the state tournament, Rachel Rice won first-place honors in the prose category and Sarah Herbers medaled in the power round for poetry. Stefan Schallack had a perfect score in the first round of the non-original oratory category. Also helping the team to the title were Katie O’Brien’s prose piece and Joey McBride’s performance in the storytelling category. Anna Flemma, Owen Sinsky and Savannah Vega Schwartz also contributed to the team’s achievements.

“The success has paved the way for more students to participate in forensics because this has aroused their curiosity, and more students are considering being part of this year’s team,” Robinson noted.

Rice believes it is important that the program continue.

“Forensics is near to my heart,” she said. “I am honored to have worked with such fine young people, and to have met such dedicated coaches in the association.”