Sunday, July 13, 2008

New beginnings and the shock of law school

We had the welcome dinner last night for our Summer Entry Program students.  These students are admitted through a one-month intensive course, Introduction to Legal Studies.  The course is graded and is a two-credit elective. 

Each student is admitted through a competitive process for this small class which focuses on students whose admissions files suggest great potential to succeed in law schol, but whose LSAT scores are not among our highest ranks for the 1L class.  Usually, these students have high undergraduate grade point averages and many other accomplishments.

Last night as administrators and faculty gathered to greet these students, there was a sense of excitement in the air.  As everyone in the room introduced themselves, these new 1L's got to know us and vice versa.  Each table had 1 or 2 SEP students with the other seats taken by those of us who were old hands (including three 2L Teaching Assistants who had previously been through SEP).

As I sit here in my office putting finishing touches on the first week's lecture and discussion materials,  I feel that "new school year" glow.  There is always something very energizing about new beginnings.  There is so much promise and assuredness for all involved.

I spend several hours with them the first day discussing the differences between law school and other educational experiences and the changes that they will need to make in their study habits.  By the end of the second day, most of the students will have realized that there is a great deal of reading and the standards are higher than in their prior education.  The TA's do a review session before the first exam on Friday.  However, the first exam is always a shock because it is comprehensive and requires analysis as well as memorization.

I'll spend next weekend grading.  And then, I'll start meeting with each student to discuss the results.  There will be stunned looks from those who never received any grades except "A's" before now.  There are usually some tears.  I'll spend a great deal of time giving encouragement and reminding each student that it is one grade in multiple grades over the next four weeks.  In addition to my individualized attention and detailed comments on the exam, TA's will also provide individual tutoring for those students who did not grasp the material sufficiently.

Part of me wishes that I did not have to give grades.  However, I also know that my students need feedback to understand what they have grasped and what they have not.  So, I walk the line between the reality of their performance (if weak) and the importance of their realizing that they can succeed if they make the changes necessary to succeed. 

I would feel better if all of the students who do poorly on the first exam do so because they did not take the week's work seriously; however, only a few of the poor grades result from that attitude.  For most who receive their first bad grades, they made the same mistakes that professors see on fall practice exams.  At least, I have the knowledge that they are learning lessons now which if taken to heart can help them succeed in the fall semester rather than end up on probation in January.

The SEP students have a special place in my heart because they are often from disadvantaged backgrounds - whether economically or educationally or both.  When I watch them cross the stage at graduation, I feel like my own children are graduating.  And, when I see them later as practicing attorneys, I feel an almost parental pride in their accomplishments. 

So, the next four weeks are especially important to me because I want all of my SEP students to succeed.  I'll easily work fifteen hours a day on class prep and grading.  It will be exhausting.  So, I plan to go home now and enjoy the last few hours of "the glow."  (Amy Jarmon)         

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