- Skill Sharpener
Law Students Learn By Teaching in Washington College of Law's Marshall-Brennan Program
by Erica Winter
The vast majority of high school students surveyed in a study released January 31 said they thought flag burning was illegal. The study, "The Future of the First Amendment," was commissioned by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and was conducted by researchers at the University of Connecticut. Answers from the 100,000 high school students surveyed demonstrated the general lack of understanding of the First Amendment in the United States.
Nearly 75% of the students said they do not know how they feel about the First Amendment or admit they take it for granted, according to a release summarizing the study. Half of the students think that the government can censor the Internet. And, possibly most disturbing, more than one-third think the First Amendment goes too far in the rights it guarantees.
The survey suggests that First Amendment rights would be universally known if they were classroom staples.
"These results are not only disturbing; they are dangerous," said Knight Foundation President and CEO Hodding Carter, III, in the release: "Ignorance about the basics of this free society is a danger to our nation's future."
Marshall-Brennan fellows Fernando Amarillas and Melissa Rifkin are working to change that. Both are second-year WCL students teaching Constitutional Law courses in area high schools. They also take the concurrent advanced Constitutional Law seminar with Professor Jamin Raskin and Professor Steven Wermiel, who head up the Marshall-Brennan program.
The Marshall-Brennan program is "incredibly rewarding," says Amarillas, adding that many law students who participate say it is the best thing they have done in law school. Amarillas teaches the elective course to a diverse group of 10th-12th graders at Woodrow Wilson High School in the northwest section of Washington, in the same neighborhood as American University.
Teaching high school students is as he imagined, Amarillas says, "and better." Constitutional Law is difficult and dense, he says; he thought it might be a hard subject to teach to high school students. His students have been "engaged, receptive, and ready to learn," he says.
Amarillas teaches on a full schedule, working at the high school from 10:30 a.m. to noon, alternating weeks between a Monday-Wednesday-Friday schedule and Tuesdays-Thursdays, with the same group of kids for the whole year. Most of his law school classes are in the afternoons and evenings. That dizzying schedule is actually manageable, Amarillas says, as long as he sets aside enough prep time for teaching.
While an undergrad at UCLA, Amarillas worked with Los Angeles students to increase their competitiveness in the college admissions process; he worked with them on SAT preparation and with the college admission process. "It's always been a passion of mine, education and working with students," he says.
Constitutional Law is important for high school students to know, says Amarillas. "What better things to teach?" When he was telling his high school class about the First Amendment study, they responded that those students would have given different answers if they had taken this class.
Starting out, most of Amarillas's students had a cursory knowledge of Constitutional Law, such as the names of certain landmark cases. Now, they are very interested in Supreme Court cases that relate to high school students, such as Fourth Amendment issues in searches of student lockers and their persons.
Melissa Rifkin's students are also most interested in Fourth Amendment issues, she says, perhaps fittingly concerned, like many teenagers, about their personal privacy. Rifkin teaches 45-minute classes five days a week on a semester system at Kennedy High School in Silver Spring, MD. She had 19 students last semester and 25 this term. Her students are "very fired up" about privacy issues, she says.
Rifkin's students are less concerned, however, with issues surrounding prayer in schools, which is surprising, since there is so much emphasis put on the issue in law school, she notes. Possibly, high school students do not like to think that their values would be changed by the actions of others, so prayer is no big deal, since it would do nothing to change their beliefs.
Rifkin had tutored children in reading skills before becoming a Marshall-Brennan fellow but had not taught in a classroom before. The experience is honing her public speaking skills, first and foremost. "There is no better way" to learn public speaking than to get up in front of a group of teens and start to teach them something, she says.
The second thing she is learning from teaching, says Rifkin, is how to translate the law for non-lawyers. Some say that law school teaches students "a new language," says Rifkin. Teaching high school kids allows her to translate that new language back into plain English, she says.
One fascinating thing about Constitutional Law that she teaches her students is what it is, exactly, and what it is not. Constitutional Law deals with fundamental rights, but it does not relate to whether the action being taken is good or bad.
For example, there is a section in the program's textbook (We the Students: Supreme Court Cases For and About Students, written by Professor Raskin) on the juvenile death penalty. Constitutional Law is not about whether or not the death penalty is an effective deterrent or justifiable punishment. Constitutional Law looks at whether or not the death penalty violates the Eighth Amendment's provision against cruel and unusual punishment.
Another example, also covered in the textbook, is flag burning. Possibly, Rifkin says, society is not well served by burning the flag; but still, we cannot have a law against flag burning because that would violate the fundamental right of free speech. The same goes for marches by the Ku Klux Klan—unacceptable to the vast majority of people, but fundamentally protected nonetheless.
Teaching high school students Constitutional Law "helps them understand their country and the world around them," says Rifkin. Knowing that there are limits on what authority figures are allowed to do also empowers the kids, she says. And so far, while none of her students have expressed desires to become lawyers yet, she has been asked if she would be able to teach Con Law II.