Monday, October 18, 2021
In the musical Hamilton, Eliza tries to persuade her husband, Alexander, to take a break, “Take a break…Run away with us for the summer. Let's go upstate…There's a lake I know…In a nearby park. I'd love to go.” Alexander refuses to go and, no spoilers beyond this, it doesn’t end well.
Two weeks ago, on the first Monday in October, I asked my undergraduates why this time of year was so important, and one student said, “It’s spooky season.” I was trying to get at the Supreme Court getting back to work (on what very well may a spooky season of cases), but it is also, as ASP folks know, that scary time of year when our 1Ls hit a wall. I’ve stockpiled candy (easy this time of year), tissues, and some advice.
We all know that 1Ls have a moment of crisis when they lose their altruism about helping the world with their law degree and become caught up in a smaller world of grades, midterms, legal writing assignments, outlining, and the overwhelmingness of just showing up for class. Students lose sight of why they even came to law school to begin with. Surely, masochism wasn’t the reason mentioned in their application personal statements. Sometimes, students need to be reminded of their initial reasons for being a lawyer. A gentle reminder might be enough for some students. It never hurts to tell them that no one really comes to law school to be a law student, they come to become a lawyer. Being a law student is temporary. And while it seems counterintuitive to advise taking a break, that is the advice I often give them at this point in the semester.
This may be a perfect time for a student to take a small break (hours, not days). Midterms are over, legal writing is less intense (for the moment) and they have been doing the reading, briefing, and outlining for long enough that it isn’t all consuming. Honestly, if Boston was a drag queen, this time of year would be its death drop in terms of the weather and natural beauty. Soon enough, everything will ramp up again and often with larger consequences, but at this very moment, a few hours spent away from law school is doable.
To that end, I have “prescribed” a drive to a beach town about 40 minutes north of here with saltwater taffy, a giant rocky sea wall that is both walkable and climbable, and just sitting at the edge of the ocean and getting perspective. Need something closer? Walk down to the aquarium, smell the ocean, and watch the harbor seals frolic in the outdoor (free!) exhibit. Even closer? Walk the Freedom Trail (it is right outside the doors to our law school). Really, anything can be a break; the only rules are no books, no laptop, and no regrets. Time spent rebuilding yourself is priming the pump for students (and faculty). The investment will pay off.
So be on the lookout for students hitting the wall. Be their Eliza. I would always prefer my students took a break than get broken.
 © Lin-Manuel Miranda
Thursday, October 14, 2021
It's the aftermath of the first day of the AASE (Association of Academic Support Educators) Third Bi-Annual Diversity Conference, hosted by CUNY Law. Unfortunately, my notes are a mess, much like life I suppose.
But I managed to jot down some key thoughts from speakers and participants that pierced my heart today, leading me to reflect deeply on what I, personally and professionally, must do next, must be next.
So here's some of what grabbed my heart from today's conference. It's just one person's view. And I realize I left out much. But, in case you weren't able to participate today, I share with the hope that what we learn together in community might truly be life-changing for so many of our students, left behind and hidden.
- Be willing to and make the invisible visible.
- Generosity of spirit.
- Ask questions about the learning environment, culture, the institution.
- Who's here? Who's not here? Who's rules? Who created them?
- Be a sponge - absorb.
- Be curious, especially about who's uncomfortable.
- Reach out to student groups. Don't wait for them to reach out to you. Be the instigator.
- Build rapport and relationships.
- Grow in humility.
- Social Identify Mapping: A Tool - Use it! Share it! Practice it! Live it!
- Humble ourselves.
- Be willing to lose control so the others might grow and learn.
- What's your definition of academic freedom? Who is it for? What does it serve? How does it help or hinder our students and their learning?
- Are you living mission statements or mission? Truly? Really?
- Why so hard to talk about race? What are you waiting for?
- Crown Act - creating and crafting successful curricular ways to teach learning, build DEI, and grow in respect and appreciation for others.
- A few possible communication principles for living, learning, and growing, together: "Vegas---Wall Street---weather.com"
- There's more to academics than academics - much more.
- Pandemic Education - What worked? What didn't? What will you continue? Who did it work for? Who didn't it work for? How were you changed by it? How will you let what you learn positively impact your teaching and your students?
- Don't be afraid to let your students see you, know you.
- Create space for expression, for belonging.
- Ask more questions.
- Make Good Trouble--Yes, Be a Trouble-Maker!
Finally, thank you to the organizers and leaders of this conference - Professors Yolonda Sewell and Haley Meade - and all of the participants, speakers, and sponsors for giving so much of themselves to us for others. And thank you to Dean Hayat (CUNY Law) for your opening remarks and Dr. Spates (Kent State) for your keynote address. Truly inspirational. (S. Johns).
Thursday, September 30, 2021
Often times I see but I don't. Perhaps an analogy will explain.
It's bear season where I live. But the bears are awful hard to spot, despite their large size. It seems that their big paws tend to distribute weight so that they move with stealth-like grace as they forage among the mountain berries, shrubs and trees. They tend to make not much more noise than a trifling breeze or a bird at work building a nest.
But I have a secret weapon to spot the bears - my dog.
You see, a few weeks back, while hiking, Maisey came to a screeching halt, sat perfectly still, and sniffed the mountain breeze. A sniff here and a sniff there. I was like, "Come on Maisey, let's get going." But she sat, still.
After about 5 minutes of waiting silently, I finally noticed a slight rustle down the hillside from the trail. Not much of anything. But then another rustle and another and another, all ever so silent. Suddenly, I saw what Maisey had sensed all along before. A bear, foraging in the scrub oaks. For the next twenty minutes or so, I watched the bear slowly eat its way down the hillside before I finally lost sight. But the lesson wasn't lost on me. I would not have seen that bear by myself. I needed the sense of another, one with keener senses than me.
I think law school is bit like that.
As law students, we can re-read our papers or our notes or our midterm answers and not really see what we really wrote. It's sort of like we are blinded by our own senses, by our own sight.
However, much like my experience on the trail scouting for bears, as law students, we have available to us, just for the asking, people who have keener senses than us, finely tuned, who can take a look at our work and thus open us up to a whole other way of seeing and experiencing things. In short, we can turn to our faculty and academic support teams to help us - as learners - see what's really in our answers (and what isn't).
So, as law students, don't feel like you need to go it alone in law school, at all. Freely reach out to others for help. Let experts review your work. Get feedback from your professors and your ASP team at your law school. You'll be surprised at what you'll see. It probably won't be a bear, but I can guarantee that it will help you become a better attorney. And that's what we are here for -- for you. (Scott Johns).
Monday, September 6, 2021
Labor Day is a holiday where we celebrate workers, an off-shoot of the industrial revolution and the labor unions that formed to help workers get fair treatment and to prevent child labor in the 19th Century. It started as a bit of a grassroots idea that caught on in some industrial centers, but it only became a Federal holiday in June, 1894 when Grover Cleveland signed it into law after hugely bungling his response to the Pullman Strike earlier that year. Before that, only Oregon, Colorado, New York and Massachusetts had their own versions of the holiday. We owe those labor unions a lot: weekends, paid holidays etc.
But what about the labor of academic support and bar prep folks? Sometimes it seems that our status is unclear. Are we labor or management? We tend to operate at the junction of faculty and staff. Sometimes we are faculty adjacent (as the Gen Z folks would put it). Sometimes, the people we work with have absolutely no idea what we do and seem pleasantly surprised that the school has people who “do that.” Bar prep folks work all summer and finish up just in time for a few scant days of rest before orientation kicks in. By this time, academic support folks have already planned and possibly conducted orientation classes. For people who do both, there is no break. Except, perhaps, for today.
So, in that spirit, I am calling for a celebration of Academic Support and Bar Prep folks, so:
Whereas, Academic Support/Bar Prep (“AS/BP”) folks are the first and last people students will know in law school, and;
AS/BP folks teach students to be successful by teaching (among other things) case briefing, outlining, study skills, exam skills, exam IRAC, legal writing templates like IRAC and CREAC, the MBE, MPTs, and MEEs, and;
AS/BP folks will track students down or be tracked down for all of the above and many other questions, issues, crises and panics, and;
AS/BP folks relish student success and suffer student failure at a deep, deep level, and;
AS/BP folks may not be faculty or tenured faculty, and may not have job security for more than a year at a time, and;
AS/BP folks are the people that will meet a student at a rest stop on the Mass. Pike (or insert your favorite Interstate here) at 2:45 a.m. to turn over a form that needed a non-electronic signature;
It is therefore ordered that on this and every following Labor Day we shall celebrate the labor of these individuals.
To my colleagues in this venture: I hope this is indeed a day of rest, and for those who will be celebrating later today and tomorrow: Shana Tovah.
Now we just need to fill up the tank, head out to the rest stop, and get this baby signed.
Saturday, August 28, 2021
Since classes started last week, we have had a lot of chatter on our faculty list-serv about teaching while masked. Last year, most faculty members taught unmasked from home, so this is new for them. Yes, your mask gets gross after about thirty minutes and, also, yes, it is hard to be understood and understand students when everyone is masked. Yet, it is nice to be back in a classroom and feel that energy even when I am not sure I could pick my students out in a line-up. I was contemplating a blog entry about the best masks for teaching or learning in classes that are longer than one hour-but I am still doing that research.
But what about the other masks that we are all wearing in class? The ones that do not obscure our noses and mouths, but rather the ones that obscure how we feel or our point of view? I am usually concerned about the things I can’t see about students even when their faces are visible to me. I know that my students on academic warning are multi-faceted and that they find themselves on academic warning for a number of reasons-many of which many not be academic. I want to see them regardless of how we are conducting classes.
So, I asked them to show me who they are behind the mask. I didn’t have anyone unmask in the classroom, but the first request for the class was to take a survey (not an assignment because I was asking some questions that might be considered more personal than students are comfortable answering). I had started doing this last fall during remote teaching to ascertain technology and space constraints on the advice of my amazing department chair for my undergraduate classes. I threw in a few fun questions like whether or not talking about the ending of Bridgerton or Wandavision would be a spoiler and which one of my pets they would like to see come to class for a visit (I underestimated the number of guinea pig fans, but she made her cameo nonetheless).
This year’s survey was a little different but began with the usual getting to know you questions like names, what you would like to be called, pronouns etc.. I asked about what they will miss most about remote learning (the commute was the number one answer there, followed closely by snacks). I asked open ended questions about things they think I should know about their learning style and ways we can make our class a community. I asked about what things outside of school might impact their academics and about what skills/knowledge they hoped to leave the class with. I got some very thoughtful and helpful ideas about what I could do to make this a useful class. I know students had to give up another class to take this required class and knowing what students want from it and how they would like it to happen is incredibly valuable information. This class doesn’t work without buy-in from students, so knowing what they are shopping for is always better.
Finally, I asked about attending the class in-person. It was the last question in the survey. The question prompt was “In person learning is:”. Unlike other multiple-choice questions they will encounter this year (and beyond), there were no wrong answers and you could check as many as applied. The choices I offered were: “Amazing”, “New for Me for Law School”, “Scary”, and “A lot and I am Overwhelmed”. Out of the twenty students who answered the survey (from a class of 22), 14 said this was new for them, 5 said it was scary, 4 said it was overwhelming and slightly more than half (11) thought it was amazing. Interestingly, but not surprisingly, no one checked just one answer. In retrospect, maybe I should have offered an “All of the Above” option because that is the option I would have chosen.
I still may not be able to recognize everyone when (and if) we unmask at some point, but for now, I see them clearly.
 The masks with the clear mouth area creep me out. I get a beginning of Rocky Horror coupled with Pennywise vibe from those, so they will not be appearing on that list.
 Intentional use of the passive voice.
Thursday, August 26, 2021
I hesitate to admit this: I've used this phrase so many times that it just sort of swims to the surface and color almost all that I do to include how I approach my work as an academic support educator. However, as Professors Kris Franklin and Rory Bahadur remind us in a recent publication, this phrase is relatively meaningless as to the real purposes behind legal education. Directed Questions: A Non-Socratic Dialogue about Non-Socratic Teaching (Aug. 16, 2021).
And, I might add a bit dangerous in the sense of destructive of learning...
First, notice the word "a".
That doesn't seem to leave much room for differences among our future lawyers. Rather, it seems to suggest that there is only one type of lawyer. Exclusive. Not part of broader society. One type of which I must be trained to think like. It leaves out the "me" in lawyering. In short, it suggests that unless I give up what is really me and become someone else, this mythical lawyer, I will not succeed; I will not belong; I will not think like a lawyer.
Second, notice the word "think".
I do a lot of thinking, well, mostly day dreaming. Much of my thinking is not productive. Why not? Because I don't act upon it. It just remains hidden from action, in my mind, silently powerless. In fact, by suggesting that we are going to train our students to "think" like a lawyer, we are really leading them astray, because law is much more than just thinking. It also requires communication, it requires action, it requires practice, it requires leaning in and giving up of yourself for representation and betterment of others. And, if truth be told, it requires a lot of writing, too.
Third, sticking with the word "think".
Of course, learning requires thinking, much thinking, deep thinking. But learning takes much more than thinking because we learn through what we experience, what we try, what we fail in and what we succeed in, and how we learn to overcome and improve through and with our learning experiences. In short, the phrase sells learning short. It suggests that we can think our ways into being lawyers. Like the practice of law, learning requires lots of practice too, lots of action too.
I'm not sure what should replace this phrase. But maybe it's a lot more showing what it is like to be and serve and work and counsel and act as lawyers. As a starting point, I just wrote our faculty and staff and suggested that they bring some of their former students, who just graduated and took the bar exam recently, back to their classrooms, their programs, and their offices to talk about how they learned in law school and what they are learning now. In other words, there's lots of room for lots of different lawyers with lots of different ways to practice. Letting our students know that they are allowed to be who they are and that there's room for them just as they are might just go along way to helping our students thrive as they begin the fall studies.
Thursday, August 19, 2021
In follow-up to Professor Victoria McCoy Dunkley's outstanding blog post entitled "Be in Your Bag (of Questions) as a 1L Reader," here's some thoughts about how you might use your senses to help make sense of the cases that you are assigned for class reading: https://lawprofessors.typepad.com/academic_support/2021/08/be-in-your-bag-of-questions-as-a-1l-reader.html
But first a story...
I've been doing a lot of walking. In fact, I've walked about 380 miles from Denver to Durango on the Colorado Trail (I still have about 120 miles to go of high altitude terrain). As a person who fractured my back two summers ago in a car accident, I'm a slow mover and that's okay.
You see, as Professor Denise DeForest at Colorado Law quips, when you find yourself lost, "slow down, stop, and sit on a log." I love logs, rocks, and boulders. My favorite time on the trail is resting. But, as I sit on a log recuperating, my senses come alive. I start to hear buzzing. I spot all kinds and manners of activity that I missed while hiking, like the scurry of ants preparing for the fall mountaintop snow storms. My hands feel the bark of the downed log that has become my lounging spot. In short, just because I stopped doesn't mean that I stopped learning and experiencing. Rather, by slowing down and stopping, I saw more than I did while moving.
There's a lot to be gleaned from these sorts of experiences. Most of our lives, let's be honest, are lived in haste. As though there's no time to waste. But critical reading takes pondering time; it takes using your senses to experience what the parties might have felt like when they litigated the case that you are reading, what they might have exclaimed or cursed when the decision came out, how the court might have explored and explained how they viewed the case and the facts.
So, in follow-up to yesterday's excellent blog post on 1L reading, feel free to journey through and with the cases. Situation yourself in them. Be expressive, feel free to be combatant and skeptical, let yourself run wild, so to speak, as you give voice to what you are seeing, as you learn and question and interpret what you are reading. That's learning. In other words, it's going to take time. But it is not wasted time at all.
That being said, I spent all of first-year of law school super-afraid (really most of law school) because I'm not good speaker or a reader (I was a mathematician in college). And, the gold lettering on most of the case books - with lots of red and black - psyched me out.
But not all that is gold glitters. Much of what you read is, well, not very well-written or good or even just. So take aim at it. Don't let the cases fool you. You belong in law school, which means that your voice and life counts. Share it with others. And, as you journey through reading, let me know what you are learning. I'd love to hear from you! (Scott Johns).
Thursday, August 12, 2021
Congratulations as you begin to embark on your legal education as entering first year law students! It's an exciting time!
But, as others have pointed out, amidst the buzz, there can also be a lot of anxiety. Stress especially seems to mount at the most inopportune times, like when we've been assigned lots of stiff reading in preparation for our first law school classes.
So, here's a few suggestions about how to read for classes.
But first, I have a confession...
I hear voices. Not all of the time, mind you. But, definitely at the most inconvenient of times...like when I'm trying to read! [I think this is called sub-vocalization.] You see, I can only read as fast as I speak (and I don't tend to speak very fast unless I'm excited or nervous, which I often am, particularly when I'm trying to digest dense legal materials).
Indeed, I'm not a very good reader. To be frank, when someone asks me to work with them through a reading passage (whether a case, a statute, a multiple-choice problem or an essay prompt), I really want to go in hiding, into a "sound chamber" so to speak, so that I can read slowly and not so-silently, as I work out the meaning of the text through hearing. That's because as I hear the words the words become alive, the punctuation marks spring up from the page into my voice, and the paragraph breaks give me a chance to catch my breath and digest what I've just vocalized. But that takes time.
In short, if you haven't caught the gist of what I am saying, I feel like I am a poor reader because I am a slow reader.
So here's my first tip: Rushed reading is not reading. To paraphrase Socrate's famous line that the "unexamined life is not worth living," an "unexamined case" is not worth reading. In other words, in law school, it's not how fast you read but what your learn about the law and legal problem-solving as you read. To cut to the chase, reading is about examining the cases and the statutes and the legal texts assigned in law school. It takes lots of time so plan on it. To put it bluntly, it means "cross-examine" the cases, asking questions, evaluating the arguments and analysis, and then forming your own opinion about those arguments.
Second, don't let the "gold" bindings on the fancy case books and the big name judges that signed the cases intimidate you. In my opinion, many of the cases in the casebook are just wrong because, to be honest, there's no perfect opinion. There are always weaknesses. So be bold and give it your best shot and challenge the opinion.
Third, realize that reading is a skill; it's not something that comes natural to us, especially critical legal reading. But that's great news because, as a skill, it is something that we can learn to do and learn to do well. In other words, believe in yourself.
Fourth, don't just dive into the cases. Instead, model what expert readers do prior to reading by engaging in pre-reading strategies. Take a look at where the case is located in the syllabus and in the casebook table of contents. Based on that placement, try to predict the purpose behind being assigned to read that case. Then, get to know the players. Learn something about the case from the case caption, which might be as simple as the jurisdiction (state or location) in which the dispute took place. Then skim the case to capture the sorts of sections of the case and how it looks organizationally. Finally, here's my favorite pre-reading strategy: Peek at the end of the case to see how it comes out.
Fifth, read with your heart. Recognize that behind each case lies real individuals and organizations with heart-felt disputes that they couldn't resolve without going to court. Put yourself in the shoes of the parties. Let the facts as related by the court speak to you. As you read, look up words that you don't know. Write the meaning of those words in your own words. Then feel free to draw lots of pictures and diagrams to help you visualize what is happening. Realize that each case is subject to multiple interpretations so you have much more freedom than you might think at first to really dialogue with the text. Indeed, try to catch mistakes by the court. Talk back to the court and with the court as you read the opinions.
Finally, realize that reading doesn't stop after you read. Instead, after reading, be an explorer to construct your own meaning of the case. As a suggestion, compile a list of questions that you would like to have asked the court or the advocates. Or, summarize in your own words what you think the case stands for (and why it was assigned for your course). Or, evaluate the case as to whether its reasoning was puzzling, or startling, or settling (and why). Or, conjure up different facts to test how the decision might have been impacted in different circumstances. Then, to wrap up, synthesis a one sentence statement or phrase for what you've learned from the case, such as: "Vosburg (involving a schoolhouse kick) stands for the proposition that people are liable for battery even when they don't intend to harm anyone as long as they intended the contact because the purpose of battery is to protect people from - not just harmful contacts - but from all contacts that interfere with another's bodily integrity as a co-human being."
Before I let you go, let me say a word about speed.
You don't get faster at reading cases by trying to read fast.
Rather, over time, much like water as it heats slowly on the oven range, using these strategies won't feel like much of an improvement...at all. Instead, if you're like me, you'll feel like it's taking a lot more time, energy, and perspiration to learn to be a critical legal reader. And, it is!
But, by going slow, conversationally with the text, through practice in pre-reading strategies, then reading the text with robust gusto, and finally polishing off the reading by making sense and connections with the text for future use, you'll end up becoming a faster reader without even trying. Indeed, much like learning to ride a bike, you'll surely fall lots and get bruises along the way. That's okay because learning is difficult work. But, just like learning to ride a bike, once you get the hang of it, you'll be well on your way to being a better legal reader (and a better advocate on behalf of your future clients too). (Scott Johns).
Wednesday, August 11, 2021
Have no fear, you are not alone!
Honestly, it's very normal to feel anxious and nervous the summer before law school. But everyone feels that way, so first, be assured that you are not alone.
Also, if you are a first generation student, it's completely normal to question whether you belong, and whether you will fit in. But I promise you - you DO belong, you WILL fit in. You are not alone. I was a first generation college and law student. I went into my first year having never met a single lawyer, not knowing any of the language, and not having any idea how anything works. So, if that's how you are feeling right now - I have some advice for you!
First - RELAX. Please. Use what time you have left before classes start to read a fun non fiction book, or binge some netflix. Chat with family and friends. I saw some great advice about getting things in order - like medical appointments, dental, etc., and trying to fit them in before you start. It was also suggested that you stock up on things for the house in bulk, so you aren't running out of essentials, and that you stock up on things like cold medicine, tylenol, etc. This is a great idea, I don't dispute it, and if you can, please do. However, I went to law school in Boston (meaning tiny apartment shared with others) and I'm also fairly certain that in early August, before the financial aid check came in, I had less than $100 to my name. I might have been lucky to have $10 to my name after moving, to be honest. The point is, space and money would have meant that I couldn't stock up anything, so if that's you, you're also not alone. Essentially just use the time before classes start to relax, and try not to worry too much.
Second - I created a First Year Glossary. I started by defining words that I didn't know when I entered law school, and then I polled my first years and asked them words they wish they had known. This is not meant to be exhaustive, by any stretch, but is meant to give you a good start. Download AL_StudentSuccess_Glossary_061121
Third - Try some CALI Lessons. I have my first year students do a few of these CALI lessons during Orientation. You can get a code from your law school if you are an admitted student, and they are free! (and once classes start, there are lessons on every topic - and they are very helpful!) https://cali.org/category/2l-3l-upper-level-topics/law-school-success
Fourth - If you are entitled to accommodations, or even just think you might be - please use them! I realize that depending on the school, the process can be daunting, but please don't let that discourage you. Start now, as it can take some time, or require more up to date testing. And don't try to go at it without accommodations. Every spring I meet with students who were not as successful as they had hoped, and most of them would have benefitted by using accommodations. However, they tell me they were nervous, worried others would know, or somehow felt that they had to prove they could succeed without them. First, accommodations are confidential - no one else will know. Not classmates, not professors, not future employers - so use them. If someone uses glasses to read, you wouldn't expect them to take their exams without glasses, that would be ridiculous. Being a lawyer means advocating for others, so start law school by advocating for yourself and your needs, and use what is going to help you be successful!
Finally - know you are not alone, and don't be afraid to ask questions, or ask for help. I start the year by telling my students there are no stupid questions, and this is true. I honestly believe the only stupid questions are the ones left unasked. I promise you that someone else in your class is struggling with the same things you are - so go to student services, go to your professor, go to Academic Support, go to tutors - and ask away. They all want to help you, I promise that!
Good luck, and remember that you DO belong!
Wednesday, June 30, 2021
So, you may, or may not, remember my yule log. As I mastered the art of making a roulade, or rolled cake, it made me think of growth mindset and legal writing.
Last month, well in May, I traveled to St. Louis for the virtual AASE Conference. Yes, I realize I didn’t have to leave my home, or even my yoga pants, for a virtual conference. But I decided to join fellow AASE member and my co-author, Toni Miceli, as we are both vaccinated, so we could enjoy the conference together. There may have also been the real need to work on finalizing some teacher’s manual materials for our book, as well as bake with her son, Alex. Both clearly, equally important.
Alex loves to bake, and loves to learn about baking. Specifically, I think he loves to decorate more than the baking part, and I’m not sure I can blame him. Plus, he’s getting good at it!
So, he heard that I might be coming to his house for a visit, and kindly asked whether we could make a layered cake. (Fun fact, when I was 6 I wrote in one of those school projects that “I want to be a layer when I grow up”. Well, now I am a lawyer that can layer! Sorry, I’ll see myself out.)
Alex wanted a 3-tiered ocean themed cake. I assured him that we could make this happen, but we would have to learn some new things together.
See, as much as I love to bake, I’ve never really layered things before. So, this became my opportunity to continue my baking growth mindset. See, I had mastered the rolled cake (I use the term “mastered” loosely), but that doesn’t mean I can make ALL cakes expertly. And just like with the rolled cake, while I could transfer SOME skills, many were still brand new.
Now, last time I tried layering a cake it had a distinct Leaning Tower of Pisa vibe that was not part of my vision. So, this time around I did some research, and discovered that – a ha – I needed to use dowels and cardboard to stack the layers. Fantastic! So, Toni went out and bought a set. Then, I watched multiple videos on stacking. Finally, the day came – we were going to stack these cakes! Six of them to be precise, for a grand total of three tiers! Toni and I read the directions for the layering kit carefully, remembered the video, and viola – success. Well, there was still a minor tilt or two that we smoothed with icing. But overall, a resounding success.
Similarly, in law school you will learn many new skills. And most of them transfer to new situations and assignments. However, you often have to tweak these skills, adapting them to new situations (or more likely, varied types of legal writing), just like I had to adapt to a new style of cake!
The two most important steps in adapting to this new style of cake making were to 1) read the directions before hand and carefully follow those directions and 2) have patience. It also helped to work in collaboration. Toni and I are both skilled and experienced bakers, but putting our skills together meant we likely got a better result than we would have working by ourselves. Unless otherwise prohibited, work with your study groups, or even just one partner. If you are in law school, you are a skilled and experienced student, and combining your skills and experience with others skilled and experienced students might help you refine the new skill a bit faster!
Finally, don’t be afraid to ask questions or try new techniques. Or rather, just think outside of the box. One of the joys of baking with Toni’s son was seeing growth mindset in real time, through a child’s eyes. Alex is learning new baking skills all the time, and eager to learn new things. He’s getting better and better at baking and decorating because he’s not afraid to fail. We decided to try to make our seaweed out of melting chocolate (remember, this was an ocean themed cake, so seaweed was a must). I will admit that I had never done this before, and am not great at “freehand” chocolate. I told Alex as much, and very wisely he said “Well, let’s try. If it’s bad, it’s still chocolate – we can eat it!”
So true – and I encourage us all to adopt Alex’s attitude in all things – if it’s bad, it’s still chocolate and we can eat it!
Thursday, June 17, 2021
According to a recent article, research suggests that changing the way curriculum is presented and taught can improve retention of underrepresented minorities in STEM programs. Berman, Jillian, How to Get More Women Into Technology: A Number of Programs Have Tried to Steer Women Into Step--Here's What Works, WSJ (Jun 1, 2021)
The article focused on a number of programs within the STEM fields in trying to increase representation and graduation in STEM majors of women and underrepresented minorities. The overall trends are not promising. For example, the percentage of women earning computer science degrees has decreased in the 20 year period from 1998 to 2018, and the percentage of Black women earning computer science or engineering degreee has likewise decreased during the same time period 1998 to 2018. Nevertheless, one comment in particular caught my eye and it has nothing to do with programs but with a person - a person making a difference.
In the article, Dr. Cara Gomally laments that courses, particularly introductory biology courses, are often taught as a "march through content with no connection of why you should care." Id. Sounds a bit like some introductory law school courses to me.
That lack of connection, of a nexus to purpose, the article suggests, leaves some people behind, particularly in the STEM fields. To remedy the deficit, Dr. Gomally is designing curriculum to focus not just on content but on the broader connections and uses one can make with the content, such as exploring questions with students as to how antidepressants work or whether students should participate in genetic testing. Id.
Those sorts of "why-questions" are filled with life; they create space for people to see how what they are learning can make an impact for them and for their communities and the world at large. It's in those opportunities in exploring the why of what we are learning that we start to see ourselves, as I understand the article, as valuable participants in the enterprise of, in this case, science. Id.
This summer, we are working with a number of recent law school graduates preparing for next month's bar exams who, for the most part, will not practice constitutional litigation or contract law or the law of future interests or defensible fees. Consequently, much of bar prep seems like rote memory and regurgitation, without making connections or exploring meanings to something greater than the mere content and skills in which they are tested by bar examiners.
To the extent that our graduates fail to make such connections with what they are learning to their future lives as legal practitioners, I think we are doing a disservice to them. Because many of our graduates want to practice immigration law, I like to explore connections to the word of immigration law within the midst of the bar exam content and skills. Let me share a few examples.
First, take the definition of a refugee - one who has a well-founded fear of persecution based on a protected characteristic with the government unable or unwilling to protect them.
That sounds a lot like a type of tort, perhaps both an intention tort and also a bit like negligence with the state unable or unwilling to protect the person fleeing persecution.
Second, take an article this week from the southern border about the U.S. government's decision to ask non-governmental organizations (NGO's) to designate some asylum applicants as especially vulnerable and therefore eligible to enter the U.S. to proceed with their asylum claims while leaving others behind.
That raises at least two constitutional issues, both of which are tested by bar examiners. First, there's a question as to whether vulnerability determinations by the NGO's constitute state action. Second, there's a question as to whether vulnerability classifications used by individual NGO's violate the equal protection principle. That's just getting started. What about procedural due process and substantive due process considerations?
Recently, I talked with a graduate, heading into criminal defense work as a public defender, who shared that they were not doing very well on contracts multiple-choice questions. As to why, the content just didn't excite the person; it seemed irrelevant - totally unconnected - to their future practice as criminal defense counsel.
In reflection, I asked whether there might be any connections b between contracts and the person's future work as a public defender. It's just a hunch, we surmised, but we suspected that guilty pleas are contracts, which would ostensibly be governed by common law contract principles, such that if a government withheld exculpatory evidence, that would not only be a constitutional violation but also a contract defense of unconscionability.
To cut to the chase, the graduate said that in some ways contract law might actually reinforce the person's future clients' constitutional protections.
In short, there can sometimes be more to the content than just mere rote learning. Perhaps one day, somehow and someway, something from bar prep will lead to a new way of looking at how the law applies, really applies, to best protect rights and freedoms. And, in the course of exploring those possible connections with our students and graduates today, we might just be able to help them see that they belong in the legal field, that their experiences count, that they have more than what it takes to be attorneys. (Scott Johns).
Thursday, June 3, 2021
As Professor Elizabeth Stillman comments in an excellent blog post entitled "Jazz Hands," we've been making the best in the midst of the pandemic in learning to engage in "pandemic teaching." E. Stillman, "Jazz Hands," (May 17, 2021).t.
That made me think about our pandemic conversations, which so many of us have hosted, shared, and participated in through Skype and zoom and other technological mediums of expression.
It's brought us together but at what cost, if any?
Well, according to an article by writer Joanna Stern, there can be a lot at stake in making the choice as to the method of communication that we use with others. Unfortunately, Stern suggests, we too often turn - too quickly - to zoom and other such innovations without realizing the cognitive loads that visual chats can impose upon us all. J. Stern, "Stop with the Video Chats Already. Just Make a Voice Call," WSJ (May 26, 2021)
Monday, May 10, 2021
Teacher Appreciation Week passed last week. I miss not being able to bake for and serve at the teachers’ appreciation breakfast at my son’s high school. But, during the pandemic I have mastered new and exciting baking skills and will bring them next year (seriously, I can make cranberry jam now). I thought I would make a list of some things I appreciate as an Academic Support faculty member:
- Doctrinal professors who see students struggling and refer them to us. We try in academic support to keep the cracks very small, but between assessments chasms can grow and we would never be aware of them but for doctrinal professors who are on top of things.
- Administrators and colleagues who actually are familiar with what we do in academic support. I have spent a little too much time this year in committees saying, “yes, it is a good idea, that’s why we already do this….” Sigh. I think “ASP, the Musical” might have to go back on the table because a little song and dance may help with messaging.
- Students who ask for advice, take it, and report back. I don’t care if what I told you is wrong (okay, actually that kills me a little), but I really love when a student tells me that they actually followed my advice. I love it more when it works. But if it didn’t, at least I won’t make the mistake again and I will bend over backwards and do a death drop to fix it for that student. Go ahead and Google death drop and if you know me, picture me doing it-on purpose….I’ll wait until the laughter subsides.
- A Dean of Students office that values my perspective. When I tell our Dean of Students office that I am worried about a student, they respond quickly and kindly. I may see the problems, but they have the power to solve (most of) them. Together, we are the village that gets our students to the finish line.
- The Law School Academic Support professional community. This has to be the most generous and understanding community in all of law academia. I once mentioned in a meeting that I am teaching an MPT class this year and had three offers of materials-soup to nuts- in less than thirty seconds. You are never alone in this ASP journey. As I told our Dean when he came to welcome our regional conference participants, there is nothing to be nervous about in addressing us, after all--we are ASP.
Happy Teacher Appreciation Week to all my colleagues.
(Elizabeth Stillman - Guest Blogger)
Thursday, April 22, 2021
As one of my colleagues Visiting Prof. Chris Newman mentioned, "reading week" is a bit of a misnomer (at best) and a disaster (at worst). That's because preparation for final exams requires, well, lots of preparation with lots of activity and engagement in learning and doing.
With that in mind, I asked my students to share one thing they learned this semester.
Here's a sample of the many suggestions from my students to you that can help you engage in successfully preparing for your final exams too:
"Practice even if you think you don't need it."
"Practice makes perfect."
"Re-reading is not the best way to study."
"When you eliminate the impossible, whatever's left has to be right."
"Practice and don't be afraid to fail."
"Keep the hope high and practice!"
"Believe in the growth mindset!"
"Embrace failure and learn from it."
"Because, Because, Because!"
"Failure is a part of learning."
"Start with the call of the question."
"Making mistakes and getting things wrong helps you learn even more."
"Do vs. Memorize."
So, good luck to all of you as you put these sorts of tips into action in preparing for your final exams! (Scott Johns).
P.S. For more information along with concrete strategies and action items, please see Prof. Steven Foster's blog post, entitled: Foster, S., Effective Finals Preparation (Apr. 18, 2021). Not sure where to find practice problems, here's a resource of old bar exam problems, organized by subject matter (and they are available free of charge!): Practice Essay Exams.
Thursday, April 8, 2021
With just a few more weeks of classes for most law students, many of us are afraid. Sorely afraid because we know that we've got a lot to do and a lot to learn.
Facing those fears is key. I recall when I was growing up that parents constantly told me to be "careful." "Watch your step." "Play more gentle."
Sometimes I wish that the advice was instead: "Be courageous!"
You see, without bruises there can be little growth and thus little learning.
Nevertheless, it need not be all hard-knock lessons. After all, you as law students are paying valuable consideration to earn your law degrees. So take advantage of the resources that are available to you.
Let me give you a suggestion based on a column that I saw from a behavioral economist in response to the question "[w]hat's the best way to get useful feedback and make the most of...conversations?" D. Ariely, Dear Can Column, Wall Street Journal (Feb. 4, 2021).
The short answer is don't ask for feedback.
Instead, "...research shows that in general, looking at the past isn't the best way to figure out what we should be doing differently in the future. Instead of asking for feedback, which is backward-looking and usually vague, try asking your [professor] for advice. That will encourage them to look ahead and give you concrete suggestions and actionable items." Id.
So, be courageous. Seek out advice. Ask for concrete action items to improve future performance. Skip the feedback and instead ask for "feed for the future," i.e., advice. (Scott Johns).
Saturday, March 27, 2021
I don’t know about your law school, but we did not have a regular week-long spring break this year. Instead, perhaps as an afterthought, we were awarded a one-day reprieve which occurred on St. Patrick’s Day…in Boston (people who have ever lived in Boston will know what I mean).
I truly understand why we did not have our usual break. We are part of a university that has undergraduates, as well as a business school, and we did not want students leaving and returning to campus in the middle of a pandemic, especially since these students are most likely to be vaccinated in the last wave. As a result, we started a week later in January to allow more self-quarantining and to keep our end dates and commencement on schedule. One Wednesday in the middle of March made sense from a strategic planning point of view.
And yet, this is the week I have spent the most time talking to tearful and anxious students who have hit a wall. This is also the week that students have disappeared from my radar and I have had the most correspondence with our Dean of Students Office about students I am worried about. I have begun starting my emails to them with, “me again...” and ending them with, “again, sorry to add something else to your plate.” Joni Mitchell was absolutely right when she said, “Don't it always seem to go; That you don't know what you've got till it's gone.” Sigh.
The one class I teach on Wednesdays is a one-credit MPT driven class. We meet for about an hour at the utter apex of the workweek: high noon. I am never sure if I should ask how everyone’s weekend was or whether I should wish them a good one-it is an awkward time for small talk. I’d like to think that this class, at its silly time, is an oasis in an otherwise Zoomful chaos. Since spring “break,” fell on our class day, I told the students in this class that I would consider the day sacred and assign no new work or have any assignments due, so long as they each did something that gave them joy and send me a picture to prove it. I wanted students to think that the one “assignment” they had, for the one day of break they had, was to do one thing that brought them joy. In return, I promised I would send them my proof as well.
As usual, this class of students did not disappoint. The first picture I received was of an absolutely adorable baby and the caption, “I’m spending some time with my niece!” This was followed by a selfie of a student driving a few dogs to the dog park-even the basset hound looked cheerful. So far, I have received photos of snuggly kittens, excited meetings with friends, a birthday cake, a recent publication, a dog who had lost a battle with a skunk but smiled at a bath, a bubble bath drawn and ready (for a human), a map of a five-mile run, and a pizza from a favorite place shared with a favorite person. The picture of a visit with a grandmother--for the first time in a year-- made me cry. In return, my students got a series of shots from me that included: a recipe, my gathered ingredients, batter in a pan, and, finally, my son eating a gooey brownie. The fact that not everyone was in a position to engage in happy activities was not lost on me either-there are no consequences or penalties for not sending the picture and pictures were sent only to me, not the whole class.
While our Wednesday off was something, it was also clear that one day was not enough of a break for students in times that are already fraught. It is not enough time for a student to turn away from the pressure of law school and then, refreshed, turn back to finish up the semester. Everything we do these days seems both rushed and suspended in time, abbreviated and yet drawn out. I worry that we will crawl over the finish line at the end of the semester at exactly the time students need to summon the energy to run. Safety and wellness do not belong on opposite sides of the same scale and I hope that we are not forced to weigh them against each other again. Next year, may we all find ourselves somewhere with, “a pink hotel, a boutique, and a swingin' hot spot” for spring break.
(Elizabeth Stillman - Guest Blogger)
Thursday, March 18, 2021
It might seem a bit late in the learning curve. To welcome our students, again, to class.
But, I suppose I'm in a habit of doing so because each class I start with an enthusiastic "Welcome!"
Nevertheless, do I, do we, really mean that? Do we really "welcome" our students? And, if so, what do we mean and how do we go about "welcoming" our students?
It seems to me that the word "welcome" suggests something like "being present to embrace my students, coming along side them to create a place of graciousness wellness."
So, taking the inspiration from a presentation by Prof. Katie Jones (Lincoln Memorial University) about how to incorporate online corporate drafting exercises in law school spaces, I tried my hand at a very brief mini-exercise with the goal of helping my students welcome each other.
As Prof. Katie Jones explained, the first step was to craft a discussion question requiring group responses. Dividing the class into 12 to 20 small groups of students (and using google docs), the students - working in teams - drafted answers to the following question:
"What are three things that you share in common with your group outside of law school and legal education?"
Hard at work, the groups came up with lists, often times with more than 3 things shared.
Back together as a whole, I asked one group to share what they had learned about their group. The lists were fascinating, welcoming, and embracing, even if some of the things that they shared were things such as "We are all so fully spent and exhausted."
In short, they learned, at least a bit, that they weren't alone.
I next asked the group of students to share how they had learned the things that they shared in common.
That's where it got really interesting because the key to learning about group members was in asking questions, lots of questions, sometimes questions that led to dead ends and then other questions that led to sparks of commonness.
The questions required curiosity and creativity and openness. As they questioned, they learned. In fact, as one of my students at the end of class responded to the question from me about what they had all learned today, the student remarked that she learned that "asking questions is a form of learning."
How true! How well said!
So, rather than having students read research articles about how to learn to learn, you might try this simple exercise, courtesy of Prof. Kate Jones, in exploring in real-time how to learn. After all, sometimes the best lessons - the lasting lessons - come from within. (Scott Johns - University of Denver).
P.S. Asking questions, being curious, and engaging in creativity seem like the same tools that can make law school learning bloom.
Thursday, March 11, 2021
You've most likely heard the expression that "there's a method to our madness." I'm not so sure that's true in much of legal education, at least when it comes to teaching and learning.
I sometimes wonder if there's not much of a method, beyond the Socratic method, which means that there might be a just a lot of plain madness without methods. If so, then I suspect that we are leaving a lot of learners behind. And our world needs each of them, each of their voices, their experiences, and their skills.
Big picture wise, I have a hunch that the method of legal education might be summarized as "outside-in" teaching. By this I mean that our teaching practices seem to suggest that we believe that the best way to teach our students to learn is to have them hear from us, to listen to us, to watch us, and to emulate us. "Outside-in."
But research on legal education suggests that much if not most learning takes place outside of the classroom. It's "inside-out." It's the work that our students undertake within themselves to make memories with the materials, to create new connections to what they've learned before, and to experience and grow as creative thinkers and critical problem-solvers.
Everyday I skim the news and learn nothing.
Why not? Because I don't act on it. By my actions (or rather lack of actions) I seem to think - erroneously - that just by taking the news in that I am in some way learning something new about the world around me. After all the word "news" is derived from the singular "new."
But nothing new happens to me unless I take another step, unless I change something about me and how I view the world, in short, unless I act upon what I read.
That takes resolve, work, time, reflection, passion, commitment, and patience. That's because, if I were to brainstorm possible words that might serve as synonyms to learning, I think that the word I would choose would be "growing." Learning means growing. So as you work with students, you might ask them how they view learning. Better yet, ask them what they are doing to learn...today. In fact, you might ask them to share examples of "inside-out" learning (and how that helped them learn). (Scott Johns).
Thursday, March 4, 2021
I just read an article suggesting that learning to learn is the latest fad in higher education. Something that will pass, sooner or later, much like the buzz a few years back about learning styles. I'm not so sure.
Now I do have my doubts about the efficacy of lectures featuring talking-head presentations about how to learn to learn. That doesn't seem like learning how to learn. Rather, that seems like a good way, especially on zoom, to lull a class into a nice dreamlike state of slumber.
But, I've shown a few of the charts from the research reports to my students. When I show graphs to my students, I don't' talk. I wait. I wait some more. And I ask them what they see. I ask them what they learn from that chart about learning. I ask them how they might apply what they are learning to their academic work as law students. In other words, I have them act and create something personal from what they are witnessing so that what they are learning becomes part of them, becomes true to them.
So is learning to learn the latest craze? I can't say for sure. But it sure seems to be helping my students develop confidence in actively learning and diving into their studies, not as students, but as learners instead. And that's something to say, fad or no fad. (Scott Johns).
You've heard the quip about "the chicken or the egg, which comes first?"
Well, as the joke goes, "I've just ordered one of each from Amazon, so I let you know tomorrow!"
That got me thinking about memorization.
My students are really concerned about memorization, particularly because most of their law school exams, unlike bar exams, are open book/open note exams. But take a look at the word "memorization." That's a word of action, of a process, of recalling something previously learned. In other words, at its root core the word "memorization" derives from creating "memories." So how do you create memories when it comes to learning rules of law?
Or, to ask it another way, which comes first, memorization or memories?
Well, I think that the answer to that question is in the question because it's memories that we memorize. So the key to memorizing is to work through lots of problems, to test yourself with your study tools, in short, to create lots of memories with the rules. You see, memorization is just a fancy word for the process of experiencing memories through distributed and mixed practice over time. So, instead of worrying about memorization, make a memory (and lots of them). (Scott Johns).