5th Grader’s Success in Debate Speaks Volumes

Thomas Vandenburg, a 5th-grader at Valentine Elementary School, is rarely stumped for words, a trait that served him well in the Principios Invitational II, a speech and debate tournament held recently in Arleta.
In the Elementary Division, Vandenburg took first place in the Congress category, second place in spar debate and fifth place in impromptu.
Far from being intimidated by the prospect of public speaking, Vandenburg, 10, seems to relish it. He first visited the Nova 42 speech and debate academy in Pasadena a year ago, watched a couple of debate rounds, and “I loved it,” he said, “because it’s easy to express myself in writing and speaking. It’s just fun for me.”
His mother, Mimy, said, “He would state his opinions at an early age, because he read so much. He would argue with me. I thought, ‘I need to find a place for you to argue so you don’t do it at home.’” She smiled and continued, “It didn’t work that way.”
Vandenburg’s spunk undoubtedly helped him in the category in which he took home the first-place trophy. Participants were given the particulars of three hypothetical legislative bills and had opportunities to speak for or against them. The topics, provided to competitors in advance, were controversial: Under-served public schools should be able to sell junk food to make up funding shortfalls; public school instruction should not start until 9 a.m.; and consistently low Common Core test results should be grounds for firing teachers.
“The other people wanted to be on negation,” Vandenburg said, meaning they chose to argue against the bills. “I was affirmation on all three topics.”
That gave him much more time on the floor, speaking, asking questions of other competitors and generally having opportunities to demonstrate his abilities to the judges.
Leigh Phifer, Vandenburg’s English, history and science teacher at Valentine, wasn’t surprised to hear of his success in the competition. “He does enjoy sharing his thoughts and opinions with us,” she said. “He’s such an active participant in class, because he has a lot to say.”
Mimy believes her son benefited from her decision to get rid of the family television before he was born. When her son was little, she said, entertainment was books. Mimy, a singer, read to him in Mandarin and her husband, Thomas, a lawyer, read to him in English. Today, the younger Thomas is fluent in both languages, to the point of helping Phifer in class with students who are newly arrived from China. (“I don’t know what I’d do if I didn’t have him to help me,” she said. “Those kids would be wandering helplessly.”)
Vandenburg is said to be an insatiable reader. But neither is he entirely buried in the books. He displayed evident pride in talking about his flag football team’s championship, his interest in golf, his alto saxophone in the school band and his second place in literature in the PTA’s recent Reflections art contest.
The young man seems to be enjoying a well-rounded childhood — in fact, there’s no debate about it.

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