Dickinson High School language arts teacher Nathan Amberg uses his classroom for more than teaching. It’s a gathering place for the Student Congress team and Speech Team to do their research, edit speeches or practice for an upcoming meet.
Not only does he coach the DHS teams, he also coached Trinity High School’s Student Congress team this year.
He also was recognized by his peers as being 2018 North Dakota Student Congress Coach of the Year. The award was announced at the state Student Congress Nov. 2 at Bismarck.
Starting the DHS program
Amberg was in his second year of teaching when he felt the Speech Team’s public speaking events could be stronger.
“I saw Student Congress as something the kids needed,” he said. “My first year we had 16 kids out. The last three years, we’ve had 30 to 35 kids out for Congress, except only 18 advance to state.”
Amberg offers three to four practice times a week, where students research, write and practice their speeches.
“A lot of time kids email me and I give them feedback or help them edit. What I love the most about Student Congress is it’s like its getting to teach a gifted and talented English class, where the kids want to be there. You have an active audience and there’s nothing more rewarding than that. I get to teach the things I wish I could teach in the classroom -- in a way the kids spoil me.”
For Student Congress, students are divided into one of six Houses or the Senate. The finals are located in the capitol building. There is a presiding officer and students debate amendments.
“North Dakota is the only state in the country that has the honor of competing in their capitol,” Amberg said. “Anybody in the building can wander in or listen from rooms where they have direct lines.”
The value of Student Congress is measured by more than the trophies.
“You have a room of 20 to 30 kids getting together, taking turns to get up and debate resolutions and bills. In some ways it’s even more effective than actual Congress because high school students are getting up, listening to each other, refuting or affirming what other people have already said. They come together at the end to vote on whether the bill should pass or fail.”
He continued, “They learn debate in a civil fashion, they learn to express onions and beliefs while listening to opposing opinions and beliefs, which is something our entire political spectrum could learn from.”
Student Congress blends “A” and “B” schools together from every corner of the state. “That’s what’s beautiful about Student Congress and a big seller for me,” Amberg said. “You're debating and meeting kids around the state.”
In western North Dakota, teams compete from Dickinson, Trinity, Belfield and Richardton (a team with a long tradition of state championships.)
“We don’t have a lot of schools competing and that’s what I’m hoping to see as long as I’m a coach out here,” he said.
This is the first year that students from Dickinson Middle School participated and placed at state.
“With that said, we have a lot of unsung heroes with my juniors and seniors because they were in incredible competitive Houses, where if anything had gone differently, a point different or another speech, I’m looking at another state champion…. On our team, every single kid showed up prepared, and as a coach, It’s good to see the kids take it as seriously as I do.”
Kyler Smith, who competed in Senate, said the “Coach of the Year” title is well deserved. “There’s a lot to say about Mr. Amberg. First and foremost he just devotes so much time to his kids in Speech and Student Congress. He’s the most caring person I know. He’s willing to sacrifice some of his family time for his extended family.”
Personally, he added, “The most important thing Mr. Amberg taught me… as long as I’m a good person, I’ll be OK in life.”
Smith is the only student at DHS who has been on the Student Congress team for four years.
“I’m very proud of the team, the fact that we’re second in state is very impressive, a kind of underdog moment, but well deserved.It was the hard work… I helped build the team, it really means a lot to me for their future,” he said.
Trinity Student Congress Team
Amberg took nine Trinity kids to the competition -- the idea was to include more students in the competition by dividing up the DHS and Trinity teams.
“We went as two separate teams,but it brought our community together,” he said, adding that Adelyn Emter was a state champion in House 2.
“This is Trinity’s first year having a Student Congress team in several years,” he said. “Adelyn came forward over the summer wanting to start a team. Moving into September, with the first tournament coming up, Trinity still didn’t have a coach, but had a dozen students interested in competing.”
He agreed to coach, thinking it would be a great chance for students in the community, regardless of school, to be able to work together.
“While they we are on separate teams, they still practiced together and became friends. The heart of any high school activity is not competition, but growth, and while both teams are made of great competitors, the growth that happened here was growth in the community.”
Finally, Amberg has issued a call to action for someone to come forward and coach the Trinity team next year.
The North Dakota Roughrider National Speech and Debate Association-Student Congress National Qualifier was held immediately after state Student Congress competition, Nov. 2-3, at the Baymont at Mandan.
“The kids stepped up this year -- it’s not easy talking just well in the moment, but they did well over three days,” Amberg said.
Dickinson High had 10 students competing in the qualifier and six did well enough to compete in the final sessions.
Kyler Smith is an alternate in the Senate and Madison Barndt is a qualifier in the House.
In order to prepare for nationals, several students will participate in the John Edie Holiday Debates hosted by Blake in Minneapolis Dec. 14-15.
“This is a great opportunity for students to see what competition looks like on a national level, as there will be over 120 schools, 26 states and three countries represented at the tournament,” Amberg said. “We will be able to come back from the tournament regardless of what happens, set a plan for the next six months and prepare for the national tournament.”
DHS Student Speech Team
Amberg is also holding the title of North Dakota Speech Coach of the Year for the 2018 speech season -- the first time a DHS coach has ever received the honor. Recent placements under him -- 2015, state runner-up; 2016, state champions, 2017- runner-up and 2018, third place.
The average size of the team has been more than 60 students.
He’s looking at dividing the team, allowing the Middle School to have their own team.
“We are going to JV meets for sure this year, and the sixth graders can throw their hat into those,” he said.
American Legion Oratory Contest
Amberg has been working with the American Legion Oratory Contest for the last three years. This contest offers students a chance to earn scholarships for writing a speech about the Constitution -- competing with students around the state and nation.
Elizabeth Yoder placed second at state in 2017 and Kyler Smith placed second at state in 2018.
He is currently coaching Madison Barndt and Kyler Smith for the local level to begin Nov. 17.
-- Janel Schiff, who gave him the opportunity to judge and assist coach for her at Trinity.
-- Teachers and coaches who took extra time to help him be successful in high school.
“I have known since I was in high school that I was going to be a high school teacher. It’s all I’ve ever really wanted to do.”
-- Various coaches around the state, “.... who have tolerated me asking them countless questions, but specifically Sue Anderson, the former Richardton coach and El. J. Arntson, the former St. mary’s coach at Bismarck.”
Amberg has taught freshmen English for the past five years; however, in the past year, he has transition to teach a lot of sophomore English and speech classes, “... which is great because now I can see students’ growth in class over the years.”
Amberg started high school at Hutchinson, Kan., then transferred to Norwood Young America, Minn. his junior year. He was active in track, cross country and wrestling, as well as theater; but in college he decided it was time to make a choice -- athletics or theater. He chose theater.
After high school, he enrolled at St. John’s in Minnesota and transferred to Dickinson State University. He graduated in 2014 with an English education/theater education degree. He started teaching in the fall of 2014,and earned a masters in education from Jamestown University in 2018.
Throughout his acting career, he was involved in more than 70 theatrical performances in a variety of roles from scenic design and construction to acting and directing. He has worked for a summer theater at Brownville, Neb., and currently is helping Michael Stevenson with sets for “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.”
He is married to Gwendolyn Amberg, who is an executive administrative assistant for Steffes. They are the parents of a daughter, Bailey Marsh, age 8 and Paul Amberg, age 10 months.