Getting Our Day in Court

sealBy Nick McDaniels — Last week my fellow law teacher and I took our students on a field trip to the United States District Court for the District of Maryland.

The event, very well put on by many organizations like Community Law in Action, the Federal Judges hosting the event, the Federal Bar Association, and many attorneys and law clerks who gave their time to our students, was a tremendous boost for my students. The Open Doors program, as it is called, allowed 15 of the law students from my school and their counterparts from three other Baltimore high schools to attend a day of a mock trial.

Attorneys and clerks played the roles of prosecutors, defense attorneys, and witnesses, judges played the judges, and students played jurors. (In my room, I played the defendant, a high school student accused of drug dealing). Not only were our students allowed to see a Federal Court house, admittedly, this was my first time there too, but they were also able to see real attorneys in action, thinking on their feet, adapting their case and their questioning through objections and motions, and ultimately into well-worded, well-timed and compelling closing arguments.

All of this happened at a time when my students, particularly those in attendance, were nearing their own mock trial. My soon-to-be mock defense attorneys and prosecutors told me they learned great tactics and now have a better idea of how to present a case. All students said they now have a better understanding of how a trial proceeds in court. A few of them told me that they knew a lot more about what it would be like going in, but now, seeing it live, they have a firmer understanding of the concepts I have been teaching.

For the first time, I (using the pronoun loosely) was able to show my students a trial, not tell them about it, was able to show them how to cross-examine a witness, not tell them about it. And best of all, they were seeing it all performed by very talented professionals in a real courtroom, from a real jury box, not in a classroom performed by my wannabe lawyer self.

On the bus ride home, realizing that I certainly couldn’t make this happen regularly for my students, or even annually for all of them, I have to figure out more often, when teaching the law, how to show, not tell. But what if I am not qualified to show, as many of us are as teachers? We are teaching really high level material in a lot of disciplines, and, being as though we are not, many of us, engineers, astronauts, poets, lawyers, doctors, we might be best served by finding opportunities to allow someone else to show, so we don’t have to tell. Thankfully the people at the US District Court set this up for me on this day, but in the future, I may have to find other people who can do the same, to demonstrate the very skills that I can teach my students all about, but can’t show them as well as someone else could.

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