Morgan Craven, Kyle Highful, Jennifer Wu, and Andrew Wynans 2013-10-02 05:41:23
How an innovative teaching guide created by law clerks is bringing the inner workings of the Supreme Court of Texas to students across the Lone Star State. INTRODUCTION TO THE PROJECT Each October, the hustle and bustle of the annual back-to-school frenzy slowly gives way, as teachers and students across Texas settle in for another exciting school year. This fall, as middle and high school students return to their classrooms, they will have access to a new and unique addition to their toolbox of Texas history, United States history, and government curricula. The Supreme Court of Texas’s Inaugural Student Court Project Committee is proud to present From Courtroom to Classroom, a comprehensive and interactive teaching guide to the inner workings of the Supreme Court. Created by a 12-member committee of 2012-2013 Supreme Court law clerks, From Courtroom to Classroom is a free, downloadable 39-page guide designed specifically to educate students about the Supreme Court—its background, composition, and day-to-day operations—and provide them with an opportunity to put what they have learned into practice. Explanations of the court, its functions, and its operations are accompanied by a set of hypothetical facts, cases, and definitions for a full mock oral argument exercise. Duplicable worksheets prepare students for their arguments, facilitate groupwork, and encourage creative and critical thinking. An optional quiz allows teachers to assess students’ new levels of understanding after each exercise. It is our hope that the project gives teachers and students a fun, interactive, and memorable hands-on opportunity to bring their state government to life, right from their classroom. BACKGROUND This project began with an identified need. We knew that student groups occasionally visited the Supreme Court, often on their way to tour the State Capitol, and we also knew that typically one or more of the justices would speak to the students when they came. This seemed like standard procedure and a good way to inspire young people. But as each of us had the opportunity to watch students interact with the justices, we all sensed that two things were missing. First, the students lacked a basic understanding of the court and its fundamental role in our society. Second, the students had no practical way of interacting with the information they received from the justices. In the fall of 2012, the law clerks routinely went to lunch as a group on Thursdays, and it was during one of those outings that Andrew Wynans, a clerk for Justice Eva Guzman, expressed his concerns regarding the traditional model for student visits. Wynans had spent much of his time in law school participating in competitive moot court, so his idea was simple: rather than have students sit and listen to a lecture, give them the opportunity to run through a mock oral argument. Coincidentally, an inquiry to then-Chief Justice Wallace B. Jefferson from a seventh-grade student as part of his Texas history assignment had sparked Chief Justice Jefferson’s clerks, Morgan Craven and Jennifer Wu, to brainstorm ideas about creating a better way for students to understand the day-to-day workings of the court. As it turned out, education had been a large part of all of our pre-law-school lives: Wu taught seventh-grade prealgebra in Houston, Wynans worked as a substitute teacher for both middle and high schools in College Station, and Craven taught English abroad in Indonesia. It quickly became clear that we had not forgotten our teaching days, and we decided to pursue this project with the hope that we could provide insight into the court that students had not been exposed to previously. Over the next few weeks, we continued to talk through the idea, eventually deciding to create a curriculum combining an informative component, to teach students about the court and its function, with an interactive component, the mock oral argument. We wanted this to be a clerk-initiated project and, quickly realizing that we would never be able to do it on our own, we reached out to our fellow clerks. The response we received was excellent, and we formed a volunteer committee and began crafting a collective vision for our endeavor. THE DRAFTING PROCESS We envisioned two primary components to our materials. First, we wanted to provide an all-inclusive background section that could give a general overview of the court’s composition, processes, and day-to-day workings. Second, we wanted to create a mock oral argument problem consisting of a set of hypothetical facts, procedural histories, imaginary case law, pertinent dictionary definitions, and worksheets that would help prepare students for a full mock oral argument. While student groups visited the court from time to time and could make arrangements to run their mock arguments in our courtroom, we wanted to ensure that the materials would be comprehensive enough so teachers could also deliver the lessons, supervise groupwork, and set up their classrooms to run the mock oral arguments anywhere in the state. We divided the drafting for each of the sections among the 12 committee members, and once we had a complete draft, the co-chairs spent several months editing, polishing, and streamlining the materials to make the lessons and exercise user-friendly. We circulated the drafts internally to get feedback from the court and its staff. Once we had a polished draft in hand, we reached out to Jan Miller, director of the State Bar of Texas Law-Related Education Department (LRE), to see if the LRE was interested in our project as well. The support we received was astounding, and Miller proved an invaluable resource in providing feedback and suggestions. “The work that the clerks created showed a great deal of creativity and caring to make sure it was relevant to students,” Miller said. While Miller believed the initial draft was already on target for the reading and comprehension level of the corresponding student groups, she offered the help of her team of consultants to review the materials and note additional points for clarification. Once our materials finally came together, we were eager to test the new curriculum in a real classroom. Miller reached out to her network of Austin-area teachers to see if any would be interested in beta testing our program. As we prepared to enter this new phase of our project’s development, we began thinking longer term. We wanted to ensure that the implementation and use of these educational materials would persist beyond our one-year clerkships at the court, so we enlisted the help of Kyle Highful, a fellow clerk on our committee, then working for Justice Jeffrey S. Boyd. Highful had recently accepted a second clerkship offer for the 2013-2014 term with Chief Justice Jefferson, and by deeply involving Highful in all subsequent phases of the project—coordinating with Miller and the LRE, testing the materials, and launching the project—we all worked together to ensure continuity in the execution of this project from our clerk class to the next. Highful, who had previous experience teaching at Texas Tech University and Austin Community College, happily joined our efforts. CURRICULUM TESTING Miller’s efforts to reach out to Austin-area schools were successful. Fulmore Middle School in Austin, which operates a law magnet program, graciously agreed to provide our materials to Johnny Galan’s class of talented seventh- grade students. Each student adopted the role of student justice or student lawyer, and they worked in groups over the course of several class periods to create arguments, questions, and responses in preparation for the mock oral argument exercise. We visited Galan’s class this past May to observe the culmination of their weeklong preparation and immediately realized that the students had taken the project seriously The classroom had been transformed into a courtroom, with a row of chairs for the justices, tables for counsel, and a podium. As class began, the student justices and student lawyers took their places. Galan quickly turned the proceedings over to the chief justice, and the oral argument began. We were impressed by the ease with which the student lawyers argued their case, and the chief justice skillfully managed the passionate participants, ensuring that everything ran smoothly. The student justices asked thoughtful, pointed questions, and the student lawyers did an excellent job of staying on track despite interruptions from the bench. Following the arguments, the justices left the room to begin their deliberations. It didn’t take long for the justices to return and announce their decision, which the chief justice presented orally, explaining the majority’s reasoning. Another justice presented the dissent. After congratulating the students for their efforts, we debriefed with Galan. The entire experience reassured us that this curriculum would indeed be a valuable, and practicable, tool for classroom use. Galan’s class showed us that middle school students were more than capable of understanding and implementing the materials. Our next step was to test the curriculum with teachers of various grade levels. On two occasions, teachers and student teachers from across the state participated in a two-hour mock oral argument exercise at the Supreme Court in Austin. Chief Justice Jefferson addressed the first group of teachers and answered questions about the court. Justice Boyd did the same for the second group. The teachers, who had signed up for roles before their visit, spent their first hour familiarizing themselves with the materials. Each teacher was assigned to a justice or lawyer group for the brainstorming phase, even if he or she would not ultimately have a speaking role in the oral argument itself. Those assigned to be justices planned questions and began to form preliminary opinions about the case. The lawyers, some of whom represented amici curiae, worked together to construct their arguments and allocate responsibilities among their group. The marshals learned about courtroom procedure and the role of court staff. As the teachers and student teachers prepared, we mingled with the different groups, offering suggestions and answering questions about the history of the Supreme Court, the responsibilities of clerks, and the impetus for the project. Although they did not have as much time to digest the materials as the Fulmore students did, the teachers quickly developed an understanding of the materials and, like the students, came up with many creative arguments we had not yet considered. The positive feedback from the teachers proved encouraging. We heard comments such as “I was thrilled to meet the chief justice and to actually go through the moot oral arguments in the courtroom” and “This was just awesome—one of the best hands-on exercises.” Many of them expressed a strong interest in bringing that experience back to their classrooms. These two groups of teachers and student teachers represented a wide range of grade levels, from elementary through high school. Most of them felt that the materials would be suitable for their students, with minor adjustments for age and ability levels, and several teachers desired additional hypothetical cases. Perhaps most important, many participants said that they would like to use the basic model of our materials to teach actual landmark cases from the United States Supreme Court and the Texas Supreme Court. By applying these materials to the cases they are required to cover, teachers could meet state curriculum requirements while providing students with an engaging learning experience. HOPES FOR THE FUTURE It is our hope that this project will transform the way students think about the American legal system and its role in our democratic society. We find this to be one of the most exciting prospects of From Courtroom to Classroom. The curriculum is now available for use in middle and high school classrooms throughout Texas and allows teachers to provide a hands-on illustration of the judicial process—a process that the public may often misunderstand. It also allows teachers to re-create an oral argument before the Supreme Court of Texas in their classrooms, providing students the opportunity to experience the day-to-day workings of the judicial system of the State of Texas. Rather than simply reading about landmark cases, students will actually simulate the process through which those cases were decided. More than anything, this curriculum is meant to inspire students—not just to become lawyers per se, but to experience firsthand how justice is delivered in their state and their country. We hope that students will learn not just that there are courts that hear cases, but how those courts go about deciding difficult questions—and understand that judges often face problems that have no easy answers or quick solutions. From Courtroom to Classroom will provide students with the ability to truly consider and understand the cases that they read about in their textbooks and hear about on the news. In this way, our students will gain valuable insight into the vital role of the Supreme Court of Texas in interpreting the laws of the State of Texas and, more fundamentally, the importance of the rule of law to our society. We truly hope that teachers will embrace this opportunity to present our judicial system to students in a new and practical way. There can be no doubt that a fundamental education in our system of government is incredibly important to crafting a responsible citizenry. We believe that this curriculum will serve as a strong asset in providing that education to the students of Texas. For more information about the court and a free, downloadable copy of the materials, go to supreme. courts.state.tx.us.
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