4 minute read

Tommie Lindsey

Drew Diverse Students To Debate

Lindsey has taught in the California public school system since 1975, when he took a job at the Alameda County Court Schools, setting up speech contests for students who had been incarcerated for serious crimes. "These kids were murderers," he said in Bay Area Parent, "and I was only about nine years older than them." Seeing the tragic waste of potential among his students in juvenile detention, he determined that he would find a way to reach kids before they turned to crime. In 1980 he moved on to El Rancho Verde High School, an alternative school, and in 1988 began teaching at James Logan High School in Union City.

When Lindsey arrived at Logan, there was no program in forensics, which comprises a range of public speaking activities including debate, extemporary speaking, and dramatic interpretation. So he created one. To draw students in, he told Gordon, he focused on "crossover" students like athletes, who did not fit the image of the typical "preppy" debater. In some cases, Lindsey said, he would challenge athletes by suggesting that public speaking was something at which they could not succeed. Their competitiveness made them want to prove their ability to him. Lindsey also told prospective team members that public speaking is an invaluable skill, and that experience on the forensics team would improve their chances of getting into college. In its first year, the Logan forensics program had 13 students. By 2004, enrollment was about 200, making it the largest program in the country.

Lindsey is proud of the diversity on his team. Though forensics is usually associated with elite students, his program appeals to students of all abilities, from those in honors and advanced placement classes to those with special needs. These differences, he told Gordon, are actually a good thing for the program, because "it's great for honors or AP kids to know that they have to work with others" while it is also beneficial for less advanced students to know that their teammates will help them. The program also reflects the ethnic diversity of the school, comprised of African-American, Asian, Filipino, Hispanic, Caucasian, and Pacific Islander students. "They all help each other," Lindsey told Tom Seligson in Parade. "They find refuge here. I've tried to create an environment where it's safe for them to stand up and speak in public."

Indeed, Lindsey has emphasized how important it is for his students to honor their particular backgrounds. As he commented to Gordon, he never assigns passages for dramatic interpretation that perpetuate negative stereotypes. He encourages his students to bring their own unique perspectives to their public speaking projects; they have won championships with pieces on such topics as racism and street life. "People are amazed" by the success of his students, he told television host Oprah Winfrey, "because these kinds of kids aren't supposed to be in forensics. [But] I expect them to be champions and to conduct themselves that way, and they respond."

Lindsey's results have been impressive. While only about 38 percent of Logan High's graduating class typically attend college, the acceptance rate among forensics team members is 90 percent. Much of this success has been attributed to Lindsey's careful mentoring, both in and outside of the classroom. He requires every team member to take a forensics class (he teaches five of these each school year), and also encourages them to attend the six-week, full-day summer forensics academy he offers as a sort of "boot camp" to help disadvantaged students catch up to competitive levels. During the regular school year he makes his classroom available for students who want a place to do homework. He has helped students navigate the college application process and apply for financial aid. In one case, he arranged for an aspiring architecture student to get a summer internship at an architecture firm in nearby San Francisco. Lindsey has also bought suits for needy students so that they could be properly dressed for competitions. According to a Bay State Parent article, students "note that Lindsey is always willing to take the extra step, whether it's sitting down one-on-one to find out what's going on, or offering a kid a ride home when the team is returning from a tournament because he know the student doesn't have transportation."

At a Glance...

Born in 1951 in Oakland, California; divorced; children: Erica and Terence. Education: University of San Francisco, BA, 1973, BS and secondary teaching certificate, 1976.

Career: Alameda County Court Schools, California, teacher, 1975-80; El Rancho Verde High School, Moreno Valley, CA, teacher, 1980-88; James Logan High School, Union City, CA, teacher and forensics coach, 1988–.

Memberships: KEY Coach Society, National Forensics League.

Awards: National Forensics League School of Excellence Award, 1999 and 2000; National Forensics Coach of the Year, 2000; Use Your Life Award, Oprah Winfrey's Angel Network, 2003; MacArthur Fellowship, 2004.

Addresses: Office—c/o James Logan High School, 1800 H. St., Union City, CA 94587.

Additional topics

Brief BiographiesBiographies: C(hristopher) J(ohn) Koch Biography - C.J. Koch comments: to Sir (Alfred Charles) Bernard Lovell (1913– ) BiographyTommie Lindsey Biography - Inspired By Caring Teacher, Drew Diverse Students To Debate, Remained Dedicated