Shining a spotlight on the performing arts community.

WISDAA: Open to Debate

  • April 18, 2023

In 2022, the former Wisconsin High School Forensic Association (WHSFA) changed its name to Wisconsin Interscholastic Speech and Dramatic Arts Association (WISDAA). The changed name served three purposes: first, to reflect the breadth of WISDAA’s offerings, which now include film; and second, to signal its expanded mission to middle school students; and finally, to avoid awkward conversations about criminal investigations, with which the word “forensic” (once meaning “belonging to, used in, or suitable to public discussion and debate”) is now inextricably associated. According to Adam Jacobi, WISDAA’s Executive Director, the new name results from “strategic planning and appraisal of our identity, purpose, vision, and values.”

One of the reasons I chose WISDAA as the first of our Partner Spotlights is the fact they are not afraid to make bold changes. Their work with diversity and inclusivity and their success during the COVID years is admirable. I reached out to Adam Jacobi, who has more than 20 years’ experience in the fields of communication, theatre education, public relations, and government affairs, to learn more about WISDAA’s newly expressed mission. We also asked several alumni what they had gotten from the program; their answers are in the sidebars.

-Kevin Schneider, Co-founder/President, Ludus

Kevin Schneider: What is the mission of the newly renamed WISDAA?

Adam Jacobi: To provide an inclusive platform so that all middle and high school students can enhance and refine their communication skills; to foster creativity, and to share perspectives. Our vision is a future where all students may participate in speech, debate, theatre, and film contests in a safe and supportive environment to express their authentic selves and to grow from constructive feedback.

Schneider: How did you personally get involved with WISDAA?

Jacobi: I participated as a student in the early 1990s in WISDAA (then WHSFA) middle and high school speech festivals at my alma mater Rufus King High School. It was an inner-city school with the International Baccalaureate (IB) program, of which I’m a product and for which I was a former teacher. 

I began my speech and debate coaching career during the 1997-98 school year. In 2001, I was trained to facilitate instruction in our high school speech adjudicator (judge) certification program, and in 2003, I became the organization’s contracted website administrator. In 2014, I was hired as the full-time executive director.

Schneider: How has WISDAA changed since you’ve been there?

Jacobi: One of the top reasons for WISDAA’s success is its non-competitive philosophy. Having really immersed myself in the WISDAA community, there’s just a different “vibe” at our contests that is far more mutually supportive and lacking in the anxiety-inducing facets of competition. That is not to say we aren’t rigorous; there are various degrees of merit earned by schools and students, and so while no child leaves empty-handed, it is far more than a mere “participation trophy.” This approach makes our activities far more accessible to schools with fewer resources and time to participate in the weekly grind of tournaments to hone themselves against others. 

For the competitive schools who also still do WISDAA, it allows them to really focus on skill development through our insightful rubrics that we continue to tweak and weigh against learning standards. 

FOCUS: Developing Character

‘WISDAA provides a great balance of coaching and self-discovery. A lasting memory for me is when I created my own Solo Humorous Acting piece in high school. I don’t remember the name of the piece but it was about a crazy woman who was hired to read and entertain in kindergarten class. I was able to switch from a sweet and loving volunteer to a delirious conspiracy theorist in seconds. Seeing the judges laugh, smack the table, and quickly write down notes was soooo satisfying. I found my “thing.”

“My forensic coach, Mr. Powell, was so encouraging. While I was practicing, he told me I had a very expressive face and that my eyes lit up on certain words during my performance. He told me to lean into that – that acting is expressed with everything you have. Someone in class had told me I had “big eyes” so I was very self-conscious about it. Mr. Powell unknowingly corrected something I wanted to minimize. I feel like I stood up straight after he told me that.”

Marquayla Ellison, Alumna (Vincent HS), community leader / proprietor of Ellastic Designs

Schneider: What changes have you effected at WISDAA?

Jacobi: I believe my legacy will be WISDAA’s technology. In 2015-16, I moved our previously in-person speech training clinics to a hybrid format that included two hours of online asynchronous tutorials about the rules and other expository information to ensure consistency in delivery of that information. This was supplemented by a 2.5-hour in-person practicum workshop focusing exclusively on practicing evaluation. The test for certification went from being a 50-question multiple choice test about the rules to an authentic assessment that entails writing an evaluation of a student performance (on video).  

I also partnered with SpeechWire, which has revolutionized how we track participation data, ensure compliance with various legal imperatives, and facilitate virtual participation. Working with Speechwire has allowed us to streamline awards distribution at the State Speech Festival that, with 300+ schools with thousands of students participating across four-time slots, is a feat of engineering! 

Schneider: Speaking of technology, you’re also a highly esteemed partner of Ludus! How has this experience been?

Jacobi: Ludus has been an amazing partner! Primarily, Ludus streamlines much of the work that goes into ticketing and marketing for performing arts organizations (and beyond), which allows educators producing public performances to focus on rehearsal and teaching young people. Ludus’ generous state association support of a share of profits from member schools’ sales of tickets (the modest ticketing fee passed along to patrons) has been a great source of “passive income.”

In addition to using technology to streamline our programming and make it more accessible, I’m really proud of adding accessibility requests to our registration processes, about seven years ago. Because our programs are noncompetitive, practically any accommodation or modification needed is honored, because it doesn’t impact others. I have heard countless anecdotes from coaches and adjudicators about how they appreciate how this uplifts students and doesn’t single them out.

Schneider: How did COVID affect WISDAA’s programming?

Jacobi: Pre-COVID, during COVID, or post-COVID? Numbers are in flux. Pre-COVID, we had 2,200+ students from 80+ schools participate in our theatre season; 2,000+ students from 150+ schools participate in middle level speech; and 5,000 students from 350 schools participate in high school speech. Post-COVID, we’ve seen some schools leave, almost exclusively due to staffing changes, yet several new schools have joined or returned after decades of hiatus. Overall, though, student counts across the board are about half pre-COVID numbers.

With all the capacity we built for virtual participation during COVID, offering those options has become a mainstay to ensure flexibility. We’re pleased that the numbers of virtual participants are declining overall, but it also saved contests last year due to weather cancellations and actually gives fully online schools a much better logistical pathway for participation, whereas figuring that out pre-COVID was a challenge.

Schneider: But you already had some of the program online.

Jacobi: COVID certainly played a role (if you’ll excuse the theatre pun) by forcing us to move more workshops online. This has allowed us to have them team-taught, giving far more flexibility to individuals seeking certification. 

Since COVID, we have added entirely online courses for one-act play and middle level speech adjudicator certification. I’m optimistic about using virtual platforms to connect interested schools, and we have some initiatives to rebuild debate participation.

Schneider: In a normal year, how many events are in a season? What kind are they?

Jacobi: One-act play season starts in early October with 12 regional district festivals (one split between two sites on opposite ends of the district); those advance to five sectional festivals that, in turn, advance to the State Festival the weekend before Thanksgiving. 

The State Festival is not just the one-act play contest, however; we have workshops for students and teachers, a vending expo, full-length showcase play and musical, college auditions, Tech Challenge, and Thespys – it’s a combination of a state activity association one-act play contest, a Thespian festival, and a college-run high school theatre festival (though we allow middle level schools to participate if they wish). Middle level speech starts in January with about 20 regional “Level 1” festivals, followed by about 12 “Level 2” festivals in mid-February through mid-March. High school speech starts in February with 50+ regional sub-district festivals, advancing to 14 district festivals in March, which advance to the State Speech Festival Final Round in April. All of these events have a statewide virtual option at each level (including the State Festival) in which schools may participate, which has expanded accessibility and flexibility, particularly for rural schools.

Our pilot/development activities are currently exclusively virtual. Debate has a series of open contests throughout the year, which culminate with a State Debate Festival alongside the State Speech Festival. Film has a single-submission festival held in late spring. 

Schneider: To what degree do competitions and festivals intersect?

Jacobi: When I started coaching in the late 1990s, there were few schools who participated in those organizations that also didn’t do WISDAA. Interestingly, every single NSDA National Champion student from Wisconsin to-date has also participated in WISDAA activities. That also applies to some of the most celebrated Thespian troupes in our state.

As a coach, I was driven for accolades on behalf of my students, which is why I saw the value in participating in both types of contests and associations. We have increased collaboration considerably, but there is room for improvement. In addition to WISDAA offering speech and debate festivals, there is also a coach-operated organization for speech and for debate. 

Over time, mostly to streamline coaching and team time commitments, many schools left WISDAA for other associations. This makes it more challenging to run contests and forces more vast geographic regions in some areas, adding more burden in time and transportation. We are seeing this hastened by the current teacher/coach shortage and inflation.

FOCUS: Long-term Rewards

“I went to a small, rural high school in a town of roughly 6,000, on a good year. I never once felt like my small school was at a disadvantage, or that we were limited by being such a small school. There were even smaller schools participating in WISDAA events, and I think that’s the beauty of this program: fostering a love for performance and speech in communities that might otherwise never have that exposure.

“I used to place immense value on external validation. Don’t get me wrong– accolades, awards, and trophies are nice, but they’re also fleeting. When I started succeeding in debate, I wasn’t always kind. I thought the goal was to win the round and I didn’t pay attention to how I spoke. This strategy worked in the short-term, but it did nothing to help my reputation nor did it win me any brownie points in civility. I remember my coach having separate conversations with my partner and me. 

“It was an uncomfortable moment, and I was embarrassed that I had been acting in a way that didn’t line up with who I thought I was. I worked to change my debate style, and started to focus on the core of each round: conversation and viewpoints. There were still times I got heated, of course, but knowing my debate coach cared that much about his students getting actual value out of an after-school activity really meant the world.

“Once I realized the most rewarding aspects of speech, debate, and acting were how they made me feel, I started to appreciate my involvement so much more.”

Dakota Marlega, Alumna (Waupaca HS)

Schneider: Does WISDAA have a dedicated team of supporters?

Jacobi: Yes! There are district and section chairs, as well as university professors, who serve as advisors for each of our activities. Collectively, they are also the board of directors to which I report, and I can’t say enough about what a loving, compassionate, professional, and supportive group of human beings these leaders are.

When I hear stories of what our alumni do, and the difference they’re making, it reminds me of the scope and scale of what we do at WISDAA. And, because our programs aren’t competitive, we pride ourselves in providing a safe space for students to be vulnerable in expressing themselves authentically and supporting their growth in a meaningful manner.

FOCUS: Giving Back

“I participated in high school and now respond and do workshops plus help with some clerical things for the State Theater Festival. I tell Adam that whatever he needs me for, I’ll do. It’s great to be able to give back.

“We’ve been able to rely on festival seasons for decades. The core things haven’t changed – we still have many of the same speech categories and the One Act Festival is still an amazing experience. It’s a festival – not a contest. Shows are reviewed against a standard of excellence rather than each school competing against each other. That means everyone can earn the top awards for their hard work rather than a well funded school beating out one that does car washes to help pay for their shows.

“The best changes have been the enhanced availability for students to participate via the online options, and we’ve added a film festival.”

Kristi Ross-Clausen, Alumna (Tomahawk HS) and Faculty of Communication and Performing Arts at Madison College

Jacobi: I know the primary beneficiaries of our programs are students, but I also realize that advisors – coaches/directors – are our primary constituency with whom we communicate to facilitate student participation. When I take a moment and reflect on the amazing people and organizations I’ve been privileged to engage with, they all share the same core values and passions for education, the arts, and fostering growth in young people. So, the more we support our advisors and streamline processes for them, the more we can successfully serve students.

Schneider: Looking toward the future, are any exciting things planned for WISDAA?

Jacobi: Film Festival 2023. During our second pilot film season, the contest will be held entirely online. No qualification process is required to enter the State Film Festival; it’s an open contest for any school that is a member – or becomes a member – of WISDAA.

I see our activities as pathways for students to build confidence and self-sufficiency in their lives post-high school. I’m excited to expand our debate and film programs, as well as to rebuild speech and theatre programs in schools that have lost them. It will be a lot of work, but it’s so important to reach as many young people as we can.