Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Getting to know your students through the "unfortunate story" exercise

Professor Debbie Borman (Northwestern) has another great teaching tip in the most recent issue of The Law Teacher.  She calls it the "unfortunate story" exercise which involves asking students at the beginning of the semester to write a short essay in which they describe some bad luck that befell them and explain how they dealt with it.  Professor Borman says that the purpose of the exercise is two-fold; as the first writing assignment of the semester it enables her to assess her students' communication skills.  Second, it helps her understand and appreciate the diverse range of life experiences her students bring to the classroom.  Here's an excerpt:

Stories range from straightforward to humorous to very sad and upsetting. For example, new college graduates’ Unfortunate Stories tend to revolve around events that occurred in cars (about one-third of student stories are car stories), getting stuck on the highway, getting lost, getting a car towed, getting tickets. Younger students are accustomed to a college classroom environment. More seasoned students may relay stories about work, children or other significant life issues, and may have an adjustment period in returning to the classroom setting after years away from school. Sometimes Unfortunate Stories provide great insight as to potential personal difficulties that students may bring to school regarding family or other relationships. We all know that law school is a delicate balancing act and that maintaining a professional-personal life balance is difficult during the rigors of a law school education.

Some of the Unfortunate Stories students share are highly unusual and dramatic, and include the following:

  • Being kidnapped by Bedouins on a camel in Turkey
  • Becoming blind in one eye in a sports accident
  • Losing a job on a television reality show after a producer commits murder and suicide
  • Being separated from a parent and later reuniting with that parent
  • Discovering that an absent parent has stolen the student’s identity
  • Being mugged and fighting for life on the street on a bitterly cold Moscow night

Often the diverse Unfortunate Stories will spur a legal discussion or define an interest in the classroom. This semester I heard a series of pet stories that prompted the class to discuss animal law and animal rights. The Unfortunate Story also often prompts a discussion of potential personal injury lawsuits and the requirements to prove an injury (a good lead-in for a torts problem assignment). The Unfortunate Story can open up diverse discussion topics in class on the day that the stories are relayed, for an entire semester, or sometimes even for an entire year. 

By clicking here, you can access  the complete article published at 19 The Law Teacher 2 (Fall 2012).



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