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Civic Learning through Practical Law

Street Law, Inc.

Over 40 years of educating about law, democracy, and human rights

Civic Learning through Practical Law

Former Solicitor General Paul Clement teaches a lesson on school rules to fifth graders at Whittier Elementary School in Washington, DC. Clement served as a Legend in Street Law's Breakfast with a Legend™ program.

Civic learning in the U.S. teaches the fundamental ideas of American democracy and prepares young people for the rights and responsibilities of self-government.  The essence of civic learning is a blend of relevant content, critical skill development and a commitment to participate in civic life to improve our communities and our country.

"The essence of civic learning is a blend of relevant content, critical skill development and a commitment to participate in civic life to improve our communities and our country."

Street Law’s special role in civic learning is educating young people about law that affects them in their daily lives…on the streets where they live.  Practical law for young people includes topics in civil, criminal and constitutional law.  To what extent can police search a person who is arrested?  Should juveniles accused of serious crimes be charged as adults? Should there be a law against texting while driving? Are parents entitled to the wages earned by their minor children? How should the expression rights of students in a public school setting be balanced against the school’s responsibility to provide a safe and productive learning environment?  These are just a few of the questions discussed and debated in Street Law classes. While this practical content is appealing to students, the most important feature of Street Law programs is how the law is taught.

In law classes, democracy is the subject and the verb.  It describes what is taught and how it’s taught.  Students participate.  Their expression is critical input in law classes.  Their brains, not just the teachers’ brains, are featured. The process for determining how a legal case or a public policy question should be decided is just as important – and maybe more important – than the resolution.  Law classes are a microcosm of democracy in action.

Law students participating in North Carolina Central University School of Law's Street Law program conducted a summer law camp for high school students.

In addition to student-centered, interactive lessons, law classes feature the regular use of well prepared resource people from the legal community.  Lawyers, law students, judges, police officers, government agency staff and others participate in classroom and community based law-related activities.  These resource people have specific content knowledge not typically available to classroom teachers.  They also provide an introduction to the world of law-related careers.  Perhaps most importantly, they show that communities care about young people and about civic learning.  And these resource people model a positive attribute of civic life – giving back.

“Street Law” is actually a termed used loosely for a diverse family of programs initiated by Street Law, Inc. (www.streetlaw.org).  All Street Law programs promote civic learning by educating about law, democracy and human rights through balanced, interactive lessons and regular use of well prepared resource persons from the legal community. These programs can be found in every state and in more than 40 foreign countries (particularly in developing democracies). 

Most programs target young people in a school setting.  They range from Street Law’s Breakfast with a Legend™ program for upper elementary school students to Educating to Protect Intellectual Property (e-PIP) for middle school students and high school law elective courses that use the eponymous textbook (Street Law: A Course in Practical Law, Glencoe/McGraw-Hill, 2010, 8th edition).

The Breakfast with a Legend™ program educates fifth and sixth graders about law and the legal system through a series of classroom visits from (and breakfasts with) a local legal Legend, an individual who has contributed to the development of justice and equality in that community.  Washington, DC youngsters have been treated to breakfasts with Legends including the chief of police, a former Solicitor General, and the first African American to serve in the Cabinet.

Educating to Protect Intellectual Property (ePIP), a collaboration with the Constitutional Rights Foundation, is funded by the U.S. Department of Justice and the US Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO).  This program provides middle school students and their teachers with classroom tested lessons about patent and copyright law, illegal downloading, fair use, and plagiarism.  Expert IP lawyers co-teach the lessons with the teachers but in this program everyone is a student as the law develops alongside evolving technology.

Street Law’s best known program is the high school law elective course.  Law students from more than 70 law schools help teach these classes.  Lawyers from corporate law departments and from law firms are also involved in the high school law classes as part of a national pipeline initiative that Street Law participates in to help diversity the legal profession.  Some of the volunteers from the legal community are actually second generation Street Law participants, having taken a law class themselves in high school and charting a career path as a result of that class.

In addition to these programs aimed at students in school, Street Law has developed a series of powerful civic education programs targeted at young people who may not be in school or who are at risk of dropping out.  Special programs have been developed for youth in the juvenile justice system, for teen parents, and for youth aging out of the foster care system.

While all Street Law programs feature community resource people, the cornerstone of Street Law programs – like other civic education programs – is the classroom teacher. Street Law’s premier professional development program focuses on the Supreme Court of the United States and is delivered through a summer institute for high school teachers at Georgetown Law Center in partnership with the Supreme Court Historical Society.  A majority of the current justices have been directly involved in this program.

Street Law’s approach has been adopted and adapted in other countries through collaborations with educators and lawyers.  In South Africa, Street Law materials have been developed in  English, Zulu and Afrikaans.  In the U.K, Street Law is called, interestingly, Talking Law.  Law school students and lawyers work with teachers to deliver Street Law style lessons from Moldova to Mongolia.

Along with the Constitutional Rights Foundation and the Constitutional Rights Foundation Chicago, and with the support of the U.S. Department of Education, Street Law has been able to enrich civic learning in U.S. schools using technology and partnerships with civic education programs in other countries.  Deliberating in a Democracy (DID) is an international initiative deigned to improve student understanding of democratic principles and strengthen civic deliberation skills.  The program is based on the premise that students who deliberate about public issues will make better decisions later in civic life.  High school classes from nine countries are matched with same grade classes in eight US metropolitan areas to discuss public issues of common concern using an internet based bulletin board. The program also includes teacher exchanges between U.S. and partner countries.  A wealth of free material for this unique program is available online at www.deliberating.org

Meaningful preparation for civic life in the U.S. has to include appreciation for diversity of viewpoints about public issues and even about democracy itself.  DID creates global classrooms to strengthen civic learning.

Source: The Leader Journal (Fall 2009) (Reproduced with permission)