‘It’s Not Fair!’

I could see it in their eyes, and I began to wonder if this was worth my time. Or worth their teacher’s time, or even worth their time. I could hear their hushed whispers as I walked to the front of the classroom: “He’s a lawyer,” “Lawyers talk a lot,” “I hope he doesn’t talk a lot; it’s almost time to go outside.” My topic seemed hopelessly esoteric for fourth graders already focused on recess and dreading the prospect of a boring lecture. I had reviewed really good materials, but as I began, trying my best to engage the students, I could see it in their eyes. I could see my presentation as they did — “three branches of government, blah blah blah, rule of law, blah blah blah, equality for all, blah blah blah ….”

So after five painful minutes crawled by, I decided to end everyone’s misery 15 minutes early and close with an exercise I had found to demonstrate the idea of “equality for all.” I asked the teacher to pass out a piece of candy to each of the brown-eyed children in the class. Before the second piece of candy was given out, the hand of an excited hazel-eyed girl shot up as she blurted out “That’s not fair!” The next 25 minutes flew by with a lively discussion in which I saw “three branches of government,” “rule of law,” and “equality for all” begin to take on real meaning for those fourth graders.

What I learned from that experience, and what Tennessee’s recent law on project-based assessment of civics education recognizes, is the power of hands-on learning for all ages of students. When a real issue to the fourth graders grabbed their attention, a discussion of how to address the issue and how other citizens have addressed the issue came to life for them.

Studies have shown a decline in civics education for school children nationwide. I am hopeful that the trend is reversing, because civics education is so critically important to our system of governance. As education reformer John Dewey put it, “Democracy must be reborn in every generation, and education is its midwife.”

Tennessee’s children are taught civics through their social studies curriculum. I believe Tennessee’s teachers are doing a remarkable job in providing our children civics education while balancing the demands of teaching many other required subjects, assessing and reporting student achievement, and managing classrooms filled with children of greatly varied ability and levels of support outside school. I also believe teachers deserve the support and assistance from others in their communities to help educate our youngest citizens. And I believe community involvement in civics education is critically important not only for each individual student’s ability to understand and function well in our society, but also for the security and maintenance of our society as a whole.

Great strides in developing rich resources and materials have been made over recent years. For example, iCivics is a web-based education project (https://www.icivics.org) championed by Justice Sandra Day O’Connor that is designed to teach students civics and inspire them to be active participants in our democracy. The TBA Public Education Committee has compiled other examples of these resources developed by organizations across the country — including bar associations, state agencies and educational groups — for lawyers, judges and teachers to use in presenting civics and citizenship concepts to students and adults. Find these at www.tba.org/resource/civics-education-resources. But as great as those resources are, they do no good if they are not getting into the hands of our citizens, particularly our school children, in a meaningful way.

A goal I have this year is to support civics education for elementary and middle-school aged children. While there are a great number of excellent resources on all aspects of civics education, we will focus on the three branches of government, and more specifically, the important role the judicial branch plays in our government. Through the TBA’s Public Education Committee, we will be developing and implementing new delivery models to engage as many children as possible without imposing on teachers’ already stretched instructional time. With your help, we can enrich their civics education with a meaningful appreciation of why it is important to maintain fair and impartial courts with qualified judges who make decision, based on the rule of law.

Tennessee’s civics assessment law defines “project-based” as “an approach that engages students in learning essential knowledge and skills through a student-influenced inquiry process structured around complex, authentic questions and carefully designed products and tasks.” While the definition of this approach may appear too time consuming to fit into busy schedules, it can be as simple as passing out candy to brown-eyed fourth graders until someone cries foul and the discussion begins.

In the end, I found my time spent with the fourth graders very much worth every minute of planning, preparation and participation with each of the classes I visited that day. I plan to be back again and again, and I hope you, too, will give time to the children in your community. And maybe they won’t mind being a little late for recess either.

Tennessee Bar Association President JONATHAN O. STEEN is a civil trial lawyer with Redding, Steen & Staton PC in Jackson. He is a past president of the TBA Young Lawyers Division.