Redefining Forensics at Churchill

Redefining Forensics at Churchill

For starters, Natalie Bamdad makes it clear that Churchill’s forensics team isn’t “C.S.I.” Forensics team members don’t examine crime scenes or conduct DNA tests — at least not during a competition.

Rather, forensics competitions test a range of students’ oratory skills. At a county competition at James H. Blake High School last Saturday, junior Jacinda Li argued for stricter gun control in America, sophomore Elizabeth Rust recited a poem about a tragic romance, and sophomore Craig Raphael wheeled out a range of voices as he read from a children’s book.

Regardless of the subject, every student in a forensics meet comes face-to-face with one of the most primal of human fears — public speaking.

“It helps you be more comfortable in your own skin,” said Bamdad, a junior. “When you’re comfortable speaking in front of people, you’re more comfortable with yourself.”

THERE WAS NO forensics team at Winston Churchill High School when Valerie Mainwaring began teaching there in 2001. The next year, two students asked Principal Joan Benz about starting a team. “Dr. Benz called me, I’ll never forget, because I was on the beach,” Mainwaring said.

In the team’s humble beginning, two members joined, and one dropped out. But Mainwaring, convinced of the merits of a forensic meet, recruited aggressively.

“I wish I had been part of something like this [in school],” said Mainwaring, a second-career teacher who previously worked in project management. “My career involved a lot of public speaking.”

Most professional fields require the ability to speak before an audience, Mainwaring said. Different competitive categories in a forensics meet have obvious implications for students’ potential careers — Persuasive Speaking and Extemporaneous Speaking require skills befitting a future lawyer, while Informative Speaking is a good foundation for future teachers or professors. Humorous Interpretation isn’t just for the world’s future stand-up comedians — wedding toasts and VIP roasts are just two types of common speeches that often begin with humor, or at least attempted humor.

About 50 students now belong to Churchill’s forensics team, and not all of them arrived with innate skills at speaking in front of an audience. Many team rookies feel the same way that most people feel about the prospect of public speaking — it’s scary.

Some team members, like juniors Bamdad and Jessica Reback, have theater backgrounds and were comfortable performing in front of a crowd from the get-go. Others, like junior Jacinda Li, initially had to overcome some nerves. “I used to fear public speaking,” said Li, a three-year veteran of Churchill’s forensics team. “Just remember that they are strangers and you will never see them again in your life.”

MAINWARING USES carrots — literally — to encourage team members before each meet.

At Churchill’s first forensics meet, doughnuts were provided to the students. “I thought, ‘Man, we were supposed to eat healthy,” Mainwaring said, so she brought carrots as a complement. The doughnut-carrot combination continues to this day. “Now we think it’s bad luck to go to a meet without them,” Mainwaring said.

And yes, some students eat the carrots. “I think the doughnuts go a little faster, though,” junior Allen Yang said.


The following members of Winston Churchill High School’s forensics team qualified for the regional finals in March by placing in a county meet at James Hubert Blake High School on Saturday, Jan. 7.

*Andrew Ni in Extemporaneous Speech

* Jacinda Li, Hannah Park, Erica Duh and Christina Sze in Persuasuive Speech

* Max Fang in Informative Speech

* Becky Fradkin, Mandana Manzari, and Erica Duh in Serious Prose

* Isabelle Thibau (1st place) and Elizabeth Rust in Serious Poetry

* Isabelle Thibau in Children's Literature


Allen Yang, Churchill junior

Yang first joined Churchill’s forensics team because he wanted the practice it provides for public speaking. “The whole thing is very memorable,” said Yang, who competes in Dramatic Interpretation and Humorous Interpretation. “It’s the whole process of preparing for it and worrying about it.”

Jessica Reback, Churchill junior

Reback acted in several school plays before she joined the forensics team, and the experience helped. “I like to talk, so having a captive audience is preferable,” she said.

In one forensics meet, Reback dropped her cue cards. She tried to read them on the floor and quickly saw that wouldn’t work, so she had to wing it. She still feels nervous before she’s going to give a speech, but that’s not a bad thing. “You have to make your nerves work for you,” she said.

Natalie Bamdad, Churchill junior

Bamdad had experience with drama before she joined Churchill’s forensics team. “It’s actually similar to drama,” she said. Extemporaneous Speaking, without a script to fall back on, is the toughest of the categories in Bamdad’s book, but she thinks part of the idea of forensics is accepting a challenge with the unfamiliar. “It’s not just for confident people who are outspoken. It’s for people who want to expand what they’re good at,” Bamdad said.

Max Fang, Churchill junior

Fang wears a bow-tie to forensics meets, the results of his father, who suggested he take a formal approach. Last Saturday, Fang tried Poetic Interpretation for the first time — Informative Speaking is his specialty so far. Now that Fang is used to public speaking, he presented a speech on presenting a speech. “I figured, why not write about speeches?” he said.

Valerie Mainwaring, Churchill English teacher

Mainwaring is a second-career teacher, and worked in project management before she arrived at Churchill to teach English in 2001. She founded Churchill’s forensics team several years ago along with two students who were interested. “I wish I had been part of something like this [in school],” Mainwaring said.

Hannah Park, Churchill junior

Park saw the effect Britney Spears and Jessica Simpson had on clothes marketed to young girls by Gap Kids and The Limited Too and asked herself, “What is this world coming to?” On Saturday, she raised the issue in “Damaging Images,” her topic in Persuasive Speaking. “These young females are forcing themselves to grow up too fast,” she said.

Jad Hopper, Churchill junior

Hopper thinks there can be such a thing as too much preparation for speaking in public. He felt one of his interpretations on Saturday was subpar because he’d rehearsed it too much. Not surprisingly, Hopper likes to compete in Extemporaneous Speaking. “You have no preparation time — you get used to working on arguments as they come,” Hopper said.

Craig Raphael, Churchill sophomore

Raphael read from Judith Viorst’s “Alexander, Who’s Not (Do you hear me? I mean it!) Going to Move” for the Children’s Literature competition. “You don’t necessarily want to act, but to use your voice,” Raphael said. “It’s good to have a lot of different voices.”

Jacinda Li and Ellie Lan, Churchill juniors

In the Persuasive Speaking competition, Li argued for more gun control. She quoted a mother whose son was shot and killed: “Someone else’s right to have a gun took away my right to have a son.” Li wrote an essay on the subject for her U.S. Government class last year, and it’s an issue she feels strongly about.

Lan read “I’ll Teach My Dog 100 Words” in the Children’s Literature competition. “The single most important thing is to be funny and dramatic,” she said.

Andrew Chung, Churchill junior

Chung feels more comfortable in Poetic Interpretation, but he has a successful formula for Extemporaneous Speaking. “It’s not that hard. All you’ve got to do is make three arguments and repeat them,” Chung said.

Last Saturday, judges asked Chung if the city of New Orleans should be rebuilt. Absolutely, said Chung, a rabid NFL fan. “If we don’t rebuild New Orleans, where are the New Orleans Saints going to play?” he asked. Chung proved to be the ultimate team player — competing for Churchill’s forensics team forced him to miss part of the Redskins’ playoff game against Tampa Bay.

Elizabeth Rust, Churchill sophomore

Rust read “The Highwayman” by Alfred Noyes in the Poetry Interpretation and Alphonse Daudet’s “The Last Lesson” for Prose Interpretation. Years ago, she had a recording of “The Highwayman” set to music, and it has been a favorite of hers ever since. The trick to reciting a poem before an audience, she said, is “just the drama of your voice, the varying of your pitch, and really getting into your poem.”