Constitution in the Classroom

By: Isabel Carson

On September 17th, students from the Charlotte School of Law participated in an event called “Constitution in the Classroom” promulgated by the American Constitution Society (ACS).  The basic premise of the program is to take law students into middle school and high school classrooms and have them teach an amendment from the Bill of Rights.  ACS provides an outline of the lesson plan, handouts, and step-by-step instructions for the hour and a half class.  Regardless of preparation or materials, I was in for a surprise and a challenge.

Waiting outside the principal’s office has never felt so nerve-wracking.  For 10 minutes I waited with a fellow clinic member outside of the administrative suite at West Mecklenburg High School for an escort to take us to a Tenth grade Civics class.  No amount of stress or anxiety over oral arguments, job interviews, or first dates had prepared me for the nerves I felt walking into that classroom full of Tenth Graders.

Initially, few students even noticed the group of strange, overdressed adults as we entered the classroom.  Chatter continued until the teacher welcomed us and suddenly, we had the floor.   Luckily, our lesson on the 6th Amendment fit right into the material the class had been covering the past few weeks.  Students who were familiar with the branches of government chimed in as we did a brief overview of the roles of the government in creating, enforcing, and interpreting laws.   However, as the conversation became more pointed and students had less of a basis of knowledge, attention began to wane.   It was like…well…high school.  Side conversations, rude comments, giggling, and sheer inattention began to bubble over at times.

What began as a written lesson plan, had to become an organic conversation.  We could not teach AT the students. We could not pass out worksheets, explain, break them into groups, and expect them to get anything out of the activities.  We asked students to replace the fake characters from the hypothetical scenarios with themselves: what would YOU do?  What seems unfair to YOU? What should have happened?  All of a sudden, these questions were answerable.  These kids had knowledge – not the kind law students get from agonizing over case law, but real-world experiences and a fundamental sense of what is right and fair.

Sometimes in law school, the focus on black letter law and judicial rationales does not account for the actual experience of the parties to a case or the real-world variations of how laws are enforced against different groups of people. Taking a step back and hearing the experience of another human being –regardless of age, race, sex or outlook – was a humbling and challenging experience for me.  Forgetting some of my pre-conceived notions of constitutional jurisprudence, I was reminded of the reasons why I attended law school when these kids explained the importance of representation for all and fair law enforcement procedures.  Their foundation for how the law SHOULD work as compared to their understanding of how the law DOES work illustrated a missing link that is apparent in all realms of social policy and interaction.  Whether it is a legislator serving his constituents, a lawyer serving her clients, or a teacher teaching a student – there is almost always a lack of access to or practical understanding of opposing perspectives.

As lawyers, we are counselors, advocates, and technicians of the language of the law.  We are also servants, and in the grand scheme of things, it is the PEOPLE whom we serve.  The people in that Tenth Grade classroom reminded me that the real world and the black letter law are constant contradictions, and that communication and access are vital tools in repairing the discord between policy and application.  As a servant, I strive to break down the barriers of communication and to make resources and knowledge more accessible to all.

I believe each student (whether Law student or Tenth grade civics student) that participated in the Constitution in the Classroom event came away with a unique experience or benefit, and I encourage any and all to participate if given the opportunity in the future.

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