The Kids Are Alright

Regardless of your position on gun regulation, the work of the students of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, the latest victims of yet another act of senseless gun violence, has to be inspiring, if not a little humbling.  They are putting adults to shame, literally and figuratively.  Their eloquence, passion, and even their social media smarts, are creating a moment of reckoning in this country.  The so-called “adults in the room” cannot hold a candle to these students’ capacity to mobilize, empathize, reach across difference, and move a nation to action.

Many seem surprised by this. As an educator who teaches many millennial law students, I am not.  I see my students accomplish amazing things, and am constantly inspired by their intelligence, willingness to roll up their sleeves, and go to work.  Moreover, as a former law student myself (although, admittedly, nearly three decades ago), I saw students work together in the face of resistance, and the stories I have read about the work of the Parkland students and the thousands more who have taken up this fight resonate and are reminiscent of work that has occurred and will continue to occur, carried out by eager and passionate students who won’t take no for an answer and continue to “Call BS” when necessary.

What we are seeing in action is perhaps the greatest student project ever undertaken.  From the outside looking in, it looks like the students are working collaboratively and sharing the spotlight among themselves and with others outside their immediate circle.  They appear incredibly supportive of one another, are pressing ahead in support of a cause larger than themselves though grounded in their personal experiences of tragedy, and are reaching out to others to build bridges across geographies and communities. They are accomplishing slow and steady wins that help to build momentum, sustain their energy, and create confidence to take on the next challenge. In short, they are doing all of the things that a group needs to do in order to produce meaningful change.

In academia, many fear the group project.  But it is how the world functions, and how humans have been operating for millennia.  In fact, our capacity for cooperation is probably what makes us human.

Such group activity can also can have its downsides, and not just in terms of the free rider who benefits from the work of others.  Rather groups can take on a life of their own, and distorted and harmful collective understandings can emerge as a result.  In the wake of the collective tragedies of Nazism and Stalinism, “groupthink” became a source of serious academic study. But on the brink of World War II, Hungarian sociologist Karl Mannheim wrote about how industrialization and urbanization was impacting our collective capacity for this sort of groupthink as follows: “life among the masses of a large town tends to make people much more subject to suggestion, uncontrolled outbursts of impulses and psychic regressions than those who are organically integrated and held firm in the smaller type of groups.  Thus industrialized mass society tends to produce the most self-contradictory behavior not only in society but also in the personal life of the individual.”

The students of Parkland and the many others who are emerging into the broader spotlight are organizing themselves at the local level, school-by-school and community-by-community, and helping the rest of us see the disastrous and ruinous groupthink that has captured the collective imagination around gun control.  And they are doing it in remarkable ways, sustaining their collective energy in the wake of tragedy.

Recent research into how groups can work effectively, carried out by Google in what it called “Project Aristotle,” identified a series of common components in effective groups, including the following:

  • Dependability: getting things done on time and accurately;
  • Structure and Clarity: having clear goals and clear roles;
  • Meaning: the work is personally important to the team members;
  • Impact: team members think their work matters and will bring about change;
  • Psychological Safety: team members feel safe to take risks and be vulnerable in front of others.

From the outside looking in, the Parkland students and the many others who have been working for meaningful responses to gun violence who have gained greater attention because of the Parkland tragedy, appear to meet these criteria for successful groups.  They pulled off hundreds of simultaneous rallies across the country in a matter of weeks.  They could not have done so had they not had some structure and clarity to their work, did not see the importance of their work, and did not derive meaning from it.  And it would appear that they are incredibly supportive of each other, both within their own groups and in relation to each other.  For example, during Saturday’s march in Washington, when a student, Samantha Fuentes, who was wounded in Parkland, was addressing the crowd, she paused a moment, turned away from the lectern, and vomited.  Other students rushed to her side, urged her to keep going.  She emerged from being doubled over to proclaim: “I just threw up on international television and it feels great!”

The students leading this campaign should be an inspiration to everyone who wants to bring about change, and can help us understand how we can do it collectively, because it is in such group efforts that real change is possible. I have written about my own experience as a law student working on a case, brought by a law school clinic, that challenged the U.S. government’s treatment of Haitian refugees in the early 1990s, a case which ultimately went to the Supreme Court.  In ways that echo the work of the Parkland students, but by no measure on the same scale or with the same impact, the team effort there, led by students, invoked many of these themes as well, and can help show how law schools can harness the collective capacities law students have for bringing about change.

In an oft-quoted phrase, Margaret Mead said to “never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”  How such groups should actually go about doing that is another question, and the Parkland students and the thousands of others who have been inspired by their work, or who have finally gotten the attention they deserve, may just show us the way.

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Why We Do What We Do

This week my former Penn State Law student Courtney Kiehl appeared on HLN sharing her experience as a child sexual abuse survivor. Courtney was sexually abused by her gymnastics coach for years as a young girl. Like many other courageous abuse survivors, Courtney’s resilience galvanized into a career path to law school. Advocating for other victims of sexual and family violence is her sole ambition, and she does it remarkably well for a woman who never wanted to be a lawyer. During college at UCLA, Courtney planned to work in public policy or direct victim services as soon as she graduated. Law school was never in the picture.  She has shared with me numerous times, though, her light-bulb moment while working with abuse victims frustrated with the legal system that often re-traumatizes them.  “I thought, oh, crap,” Courtney says, “I guess I have to go to law school.” And when the Sandusky tragedy unfolded at Penn State in 2011, she knew where she needed to be.

I met Courtney in 2012 as a 1L who explained her story and her career goals. She struck me as a typically green 1L with an atypical tenacity and motivation. She enrolled in my clinic, where she represented domestic violence survivors. The greenness ripened, and the tenacity and motivation fueled her growth into a highly engaged advocate. She became my research assistant, then my post-graduate fellow, then my research team‘s project manager. Courtney blossomed into a confident, capable contributor to our law and policy projects in academia. I urged her to stay on at Penn State, or elsewhere in legal education, or in any academic setting. She reminded me she went to law school to represent survivors. She returned to California when her grad fellowship ended.  I sent her countless job announcements for junior positions with law school clinics and policy shops in California. She reminded me she went to law school to represent survivors. We convinced her to stay on the research project working remotely for a year.  And when that year ended, she reminded us she went to law school to represent survivors.  She sought out, and found, a job with a highly regarded attorney who represents child sex abuse survivors. She lived her truth. She continues to speak out. And she reminds me every day, by living that truth, why we do what we do as legal educators.

What is a “Fact”? A “Story”?

In Washington D.C., on the GWU campus, there is a statue of a hippopotamus. A nearby sign explains that the statue was placed there because hippos once could be found in the Potomac. George and Martha Washington liked watching them from their Mount Vernon porch. They were also a favorite of children visiting the estate. George Washington even had a false set of teeth made of hippopotamus ivory.

As you have likely guessed, that sign offers readers what we might call mendacities, misrepresentations, falsehoods, alternative facts, untruths, lies, or bulls**t. To end any suspense, there really is a statue, the sign really does say most of these things, and George Washington really did have a false set of teeth made of hippo ivory. But the Washingtons never saw hippos frolicking in the Potomac and no one would have children anywhere near the Potomac if there were. To see hippopotami in the Potomac, someone would have had travel to Sub-Saharan Africa, capture a pod of hippos (they are social creatures) without being attacked (they are very dangerous, killing 3,000 people each year), carry them across land to seafaring boats, make the trek across the Atlantic, and then to the Potomac—all while keeping the animals’ skin moist at all times. The hippos might freeze in the winter if not recaptured and quartered somewhere warmer. Hippos are also very large, weighing in at 1.5 tons or more.

Nevertheless, these facts and falsehoods hang together as a story. When did you begin to question that story? When you began to question, did you then question the entirety of the facts or were you willing to believe any of the information as fact? As lawyers, you know that stories are composed of facts, but if asked for a definition of a fact or of a story, can you provide one?

More importantly, we want the next generation of lawyers to fully appreciate the answers to those questions. With the decentralization of information, I find that I need to be more deliberate in my approach to teaching different categories of facts: actual facts such as the sun rising in the east on our planet; verifiable facts, such as the natural habitat of hippopotami; and debatable facts, such as whether this sentence should have used “whether or not” instead of “whether.” I also spend a significant amount of time distinguishing facts from characterizations, which are essentially the opinions or judgments of the writer. Someone’s “lovely summer-preview week in April” is someone else’s “torturous week in April” if that second someone suffers from summer Seasonal Affect Disorder. And, now, sadly, I am spending more time teaching the difference between facts and misrepresentations or falsehoods, such as a statement that this blog post focuses primarily on hippopotami (a misrepresentation) or on cat memes (a falsehood).

For several years, I have also spent several class hours on the importance of story structure as the delivery vehicle for facts and story strategy as a driving force in persuasion. A story involves characters, a setting, and hurdles or challenges that a particular character or characters must overcome to reach a desired goal. Implicit in that definition is the passage of time, i.e. a beginning, middle, and end. It is easy to see how legal matters exist as stories. The nub is in the teaching of the re-telling, from the client’s perspective, using description and detail—that is, facts—rather than characterizations.

Facts must be presented as a narrative rather than as a list if the author wants the audience to interact with those facts and remember them. Facts by themselves don’t persuade. Stories persuade. That’s not my opinion, but has been demonstrated by science across a variety of fields. We think, act, make decisions in story. As those of us studying and writing on applied legal storytelling know, former Oceanographer at the Department of Energy, Kendall Haven has published books to help professionals digest the vast amount of science out there. For yourself, take the simple but germinal test in the study conducted in 1944 by Drs, Fritz Heider and Marianne Simmel. Look at the video and see if you can answer a few of the questions. If you can, you have demonstrated that you think in story. To demonstrate this to my students, before showing the video I divide the class in thirds and assign each group a client to represent. After showing the video twice I ask each group to tell a story from that client’s perspective.

Contrary to what we may call our lawyer’s sense of justice when the verifiable facts disprove falsehoods, citing just the facts by themselves may actually backfire–here’s a great Harvard Business Review article with links to the original studies that will help explain why. In law, there are several studies of jurors that demonstrate the power of story, but only a handful of studies testing legal audiences. In a 2010 article Ken Chestek wrote about a study that used carefully constructed briefs to study the preferences of judges, court staff attorneys, newer attorneys serving as law clerks, appellate attorneys, and law professors. From the data, he concluded that stories are more persuasive to decision makers than syllogistic reasoning by itself. Attorneys and judges with more than five years of practice overwhelmingly chose a storied version of an advocacy document over a straight-up law/application version. Only the attorneys newly out of law school deviated from this pattern—begging the question, are we doing something in law school that skews this number so much from what judges and seasoned attorneys believe to be effective lawyering?

Assuming you are on board that our students should graduate knowing what facts are and knowing that representing clients means being able to appreciate and tell their clients’ stories, the last question to answer is the curricular locale for teaching these things. Historically, the clinic and externship programs at law schools have been celebrated for focusing students on facts and narrative in a capstone experience. I am a true believer that those programs will continue to be the locales in which students will most strongly make the connections between legal and narrative reasoning. But we do students a stronger service if they enter the capstone experiences with a strong foundation. The casebook authors can include more story so that teaching professors can reinforce the ideas of facts and narrative. The skills professors of the trial advocacy and practicum courses include some training, but the first and heavy lift most appropriately belongs in the required first-year legal research, analysis & communication course series. Gone are the days when we can teach those courses by indulging in the pedagogy of a legal document’s traditional text-based sections or on a singular paradigm for organizing legal reasoning. In 2017 we must focus on making students client-ready. Written and verbal communication in law occurs in a variety of mediums, to a variety of audiences, and in a variety of different rhetorical situations. The connecting universals across law and legal communications will always include law, facts, and story.

*Thank you to Courtney Knight, Class of 2017, Rutgers Law School, for the story idea.

AALS Video Series on Law Teaching

Recently, a fellow blogger sent us a very helpful tool, that we wanted to share with our readers.  Last year, during the 2015 AALS Clinical Conference, a series of informative videos was created for law professors about the complications associated with law teaching.  The entire series is about an hour long, with each individual video being only about 5 minutes long.  These videos address some of the important pedagogical issues that law professors are currently grappling with, such as assessment, adding experiential learning to doctrinal courses, reflection, and technology.

This in the link to the entire series:

CLINICAL COSTS: SEPARATING FACT FROM OPINION

by Robert Kuehn,  Washington University School of Law

The late Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan once observed, “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts.” When it comes to expanding clinical legal education, the knee-jerk opinion is that it is too expensive for legal education to follow the lead of other professional schools and ensure that every student graduates with a clinical experience through a law clinic or externship. Even the richest law schools couldn’t resist playing the cost card to scare the ABA out of requiring additional professional skills training: “Requiring all law schools to provide 15 experiential credit hours to each student will impose large costs on law schools, costs that would have to be passed on to students. . . . Even a law school with significant financial resources could not afford such an undertaking.” 1

Yet, the facts show otherwise — every school, from the well-heeled to the impecunious, can provide a clinical experience to each student without increasing tuition. Indeed, an array of schools already require 15 credits of experiential coursework (simulations, law clinics & externships) and a clinical experience (a law clinic or externship) for all their J.D. students without noticeable impacts on tuition. At the City University of New York, students must take a twelve- to sixteen-credit law clinic or externship prior to graduation, and at only $15,000 in resident tuition ($24,000 non-resident). Students at the University of the District of Columbia similarly must enroll in a seven-credit law clinic in their second year and a second seven-credit clinic in their third year, paying $11,500 in resident tuition ($22,500 non-resident). Starting with the 2013 entering class, Washington and Lee University requires twenty academic credits in simulated or real-practice experiences that include at least one law clinic or externship. The professor overseeing the program explained that a review of the first few years of the new curriculum showed it is “slightly less expensive than our former, traditional third-year curriculum. And . . . than our current first and second years.”2  Most recently, Pepperdine announced that beginning with next year’s class, students must graduate with at least 15 credits of experiential course work, yet the school increased tuition for 2015 by less than its average increase for the prior three years.

These examples are consistent with studies showing that every school can afford to require a clinical experience for every J.D. student. Continue reading

Teaching Tips to Think about Early in the New Semester- By Steven Friedland

With the beginning of a new semester upon us, these thoughts and tips are a great thing to keep in the back of everyone’s mind whether you are a student or a professor.  This great post was done by Steven Friedland.

Flexibility and Mobility in Law School Learning

As a professor who has been teaching for more than two decades, it is easy to feel like a dinosaur in classes populated by students mostly in their 20s.  But within that notion lies the fact that not only do ages change, but cultures as well.  It is evident that within the born-digital generation, cultural understandings, particularly involving learning, are different than mine.

While I think cross-cultural competency is more important than ever in this global era, it also applies to us teaching dinosaurs.  I learned in law school in a linear and fixed fashion – go to class, take notes, go to the library, study and prepare for the next class.  Based on studies and my own anecdotal evidence, there is an increasing preference for mobility and flexibility in learning.  I am becoming a believer in both — using Web platforms like TWEN, Blackboard or Moodle as integral parts of a course, and allowing students to have flexibility in where and when they learn.

I am now experimenting in doctrinal courses to include several flex classes — audiotaped, with an option to take each over a 24 hour period in a self-paced fashion.  These self-paced classes are combined with deliverables — writing an answer to a problem based on the class material and then posting it on the Web platform, or doing some other relevant task based on the material to ensure that some form of learning has occurred.  So far, these classes have been well-received; to my surprise, students like the flexibility about when they take class as much as the remote opportunity. I am enjoying shaking it up in this way.  What is the saying?  Even an old dinosaur can learn….

 

Note-Taking Breaks

In a law school class, there are a variety of note-takers.  Some are the “court reporters,” taking down every word.  Some take far fewer notes, within their own organizational schemes. Many students are using computers, with note-taking programs. I also have had some “deep observers,” who appear to take no notes at all.

But all students seem to rely on the notes they take in putting a course together for deep understanding, especially in the first year of school.  Interestingly, teachers do not generally know how students are taking notes and whether those notes taken are even accurate.  This is why I have started using a colleague’s technique (yes, I like borrowing good ideas from others, no hiding there), of taking “note breaks” in the middle of a doctrinal class — allowing students to check their notes with other students, particularly about important rules, principles or insights. I usually prompt the break by asking, “What were the most important points in class so far?”  This has several effects.  Everyone perks up and the students appear present and engaged.  Students also are more likely to ask questions about what has occurred thus far.  I get useful feedback on what I have communicated well and what I have done poorly.  So all the way around, I find it to be a helpful technique. When students walk out of class, they should be able to rely on and have ready access to useful notes.

 

Retention and Retrieval

Lots of studies have been done that show experts learn differently than novices.  In any educational process, the goal is to move up the scale, from unconscious incompetence, to conscious incompetence, to conscious competence, to the highest level, unconscious competence.  I know about the lowest level, having been there in law school and many other contexts (just thinking back on the longest years of my life taking piano lessons).  The highest level of competence is epitomized by Captain Sully, the U.S. Air pilot who landed his commercial plane without engines in the Hudson River.

So what learning features are associated with experts? Experts recognize patterns of information, have deep understanding of material within a domain, organize their information well for ready access, and constantly self-monitor.  We can learn from these characteristics in law school.  It is traditional for law school professors to evaluate student performance through a single final examination, (although sometimes mid-terms are also offered).  The traditional summative evaluation framework promotes a particular type of studying.  Students study like crazy just before an exam, and then dump all of their knowledge on the test. (This approach was a familiar one for me when I was in school.) To help students progress from novice to expert, though, we should teach for long-term retention and retrieval.  This can occur through the use of numerous problems and opportunities throughout a course by which to practice organizing and storing material before a final exam, the use of structures or outlines by which to approach topics, and a greater emphasis on mnemonics, anchor words and other learning devices.   Sometimes, in our desire to cover great swaths of material, we don’t drill as deeply as we could or should.

Clinic Supervision during School Break

Here’s some questions I’ve been asking myself about clinical supervision in the course of intense preparations for an upcoming immigration court hearing:

  • What is expected of students during school break? What should be expected of them?
  • When should a student insisting, “I want to do it even though it’s break time” be accepted by a supervisor/faculty member? Be rejected?
  •  If school breaks are important, which is a given, as all US law schools have them, is it a mistake to even PERMIT students to do case work during that time?
  • If students continue their case work during breaks, what might they be forfeiting? What harm might they experience – e.g., income earned during this time in part-time work, family re-connection time…
  • Are any harms offset by the beneficial work in which they’re engaging, the service they’re performing, the learning they’re gaining?
  •  Where does all this leave the clients whose cases need concentrated attention during these breaks? – To the supervisor/faculty member?

Have others out there considered these questions? Come to any conclusions? Want to share them?

 

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