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Judith Schwartz-Behar is an Adjunct Professor at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles, CA. For the past two years she has taught a course called Street Law Teaching Practicum: Legal Life Skills for Domestic Violence Survivors. We recently chatted with Prof. Schwartz-Behar about the program she’s developed and its impact on both the law students and the domestic violence survivors they teach.
I entered the legal profession after several years of teaching at the secondary level so I knew about Street Law from my high school teaching days. After law school, I practiced at the Harriett Buhai Center for Family Law in Los Angeles, where I helped clients, most of whom were domestic violence survivors, extricate themselves from their abusive relationships by filing restraining orders and divorce orders. Over the years, it struck me repeatedly that there was a lot of additional legal help and information that my clients needed once they were out of their abusive relationships. That fact really hit home when a client who was finishing up her divorce asked me how she should handle the thousands of dollars of credit card debt her perpetrator had racked up in her name. So, I started looking around for ways to get that type of information to domestic violence survivors through community legal education.
When I saw that Street Law was piloting this Legal Life Skills curriculum, I connected the dots and thought it could be used to build an effective law school program. In my program model, law students team-teach Street Law’s Legal Life Skills curriculum to domestic violence survivors at transitional housing facilities around Los Angeles County. This fall, each law student pair went to the same shelter for nine consecutive weeks. In order to prepare for their teaching sessions, my law students attended weekly class sessions at Loyola, where I went through the week’s lesson and answered any questions they had about it. I also tried to supplement with additional information about related topics and encouraged them to do the same with their shelter classes. The original ideas and topics that they brought into their classes were really the secret sauce that made the lesson plans theirs.
Having come from the teaching profession, a big frustration I had in law school was the feeling that I never really owned anything I was working on. When I did my coursework, I was reading cases a professor had assigned to me. When I interned at legal organizations, I helped an attorney complete their case work. To me, the most satisfying part of teaching is the individual stamp you put on your lessons, the process of figuring out what’s important to teach and how you are going to make your students remember it. That’s what makes a lesson yours when you are a teacher – it’s the artistic side of pedagogy. I wanted to give law students ownership over their work while they distributed important information. My hunch that law students would channel their strong work ethic and attention to detail into creating effective lesson plans turned out to be accurate!
The women that we met in shelter were strong, funny, and savvy. They were the ones that got away; they were done being part of the cycle of violence and were figuring out how to live healthy, productive lives away from toxic relationships. They ranged in age from their early twenties to their late fifties and they came from a mix of ethnic backgrounds and walks of life. A few of them were monolingual Spanish speakers; I tip my hat to my law students who translated for their class members, as those students were really doing two jobs! And we were very fortunate to have Street Law materials that had been translated into Spanish for the majority of our lessons; that made a big difference.
I moved from shelter to shelter each week; in all, I observed nine lessons throughout the semester. My students taught two housing law lessons, two employment law lessons, three banking and credit lessons, a protective orders lesson, and a lesson on parental rights and responsibilities. My law students had some emotional moments in their classes when they discussed sensitive material; the protective orders lesson, in particular, brought back some tough memories for a few shelter students. Also, sometimes the shelter environments were noisy and had distractions, like the mischievous toddler who ran in during the middle of class one night and loudly announced his presence. But, throughout it all, my Street Law students kept their composure and senses of humor, and it was a pleasure to see them successfully engage their shelter students in learning some really useful law.
The feedback I got was that the housing law lessons seemed to be particularly relevant and interesting to the shelter students. Everyone had a nightmare landlord story to share! Although they were the most personal, the protective orders and parental rights and responsibilities lessons were also well received. Some of our shelter students had filed restraining orders unsuccessfully, but they said they were going to try to go back and re-file their restraining orders because of what they learned in the Street Law class.
There is such a satisfaction to putting the right group of people together in the same room. As their mentor, I was tasked with giving my students feedback and evaluating them, but much of the time I was observing them in the field I was inwardly marveling at how seriously they took their job and how well they did it; they seemed to feel the importance of what they were doing and to respond in kind. The shelter students picked up on that sense of purpose and, week after week, they told my Loyola students how much they were learning and how they were applying what they learned in the outside world. At one site, a shelter student reported that information she had learned about employment law and the job search process had given her more confidence, helped her put out a solid resume, and have a successful job interview. At another site, a shelter resident rented an apartment, and felt very confident putting her signature on the lease because of what she’d learned in class about specific legal terms in a residential lease.
If effective teaching could be made into a math formula, it would go like this: thoughtful and thorough instructors + engaging curriculum + receptive students = learning. Street Law, Inc. provided the “engaging curriculum” part of the formula and my Street Law program would not have been possible without it. The feedback I received was that the Street Law curriculum made the information interesting and accessible by getting class participants out of their chairs and interacting using scenarios, role plays, and case studies. As long as workplace discrimination, unfair landlords, and credit card debt exist, everyone should take the Legal Life Skills class!