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O'Connor reviews 'Our Courts' at lecture


January 25, 2010

Retired U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor is giving a facelift to civics education by helping teachers to enhance the use of traditional textbooks and teaching methods with an interactive Web site that is educational and entertaining.

Justice O'Connor spoke about "Our Courts," a joint venture of the College of Law and the College of Teacher Education and Leadership at ASU and the Sandra Day O'Connor Project on the State of the Judiciary at Georgetown Law University Center, during the Taube Discussion Series on American Values. The lecture, held Jan. 20, was sponsored by the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.

"Civics education needs a makeover – we need to bring it into the 21st century," she told an audience which included a Phoenix middle school teacher and students who regularly use the games on Our Courts in class. "The curriculum and teaching methods need to match the learning styles of today's students."

Following her retirement from the high court in 2006, Justice O'Connor decided to tackle civics education, which she said has all but disappeared from the classroom due to funding cuts and emphasis on other core subjects. She became alarmed by studies showing, for example, that more American teenagers can name The Three Stooges than the three branches of government.

Justice O'Connor was concerned that students are not getting the information and tools they need for civic participation, and that civics teachers need better materials and support. She consulted with education experts and was persuaded that this digital-age generation would learn more in front of a computer screen than with an 800-page social studies book.

Last fall, the project partners launched the Our Courts Web site and two games, Supreme Decision, in which the student plays a clerk to a Supreme Court justice and helps decide about rights in school, and Do I Have a Right?, in which the student runs a law firm and advises clients using the Constitution and Bill of Rights. Two more games will be added to the site by February.

Molly Kervin, a teacher at Palo Verde Middle School, told the Taube audience that social studies teaching is most effective when students are interacting with each other. Her students, who took right to the game, play online together and passionately argue about various principles.

"This is a medium kids are comfortable in, and however old school we are, we are going to have to recognize that this is how education should be structured in the future," said Kervin, noting that her students also enjoy playing the games on their home computers. "And it never hurts to have fun when you're learning."

Kervin's students took turns telling the audience the ways Our Courts is helping them learn in a fast-paced, engaging environment about the Supreme Court, the role of lawyers and the protections in the Bill of Rights. Justice O'Connor said initial reports indicate Our Courts is successful.

"But we have a long way to go to rejuvenate our country's commitment to good citizenship," said Justice O'Connor and, turning to the students, she added, "You young people can use what's right to fix what's wrong with our country."

Dean Paul Schiff Berman of the College of Law said he was pleased the law school is involved with Our Courts and middle school students. "I think this is at the core of what a law school should be doing, if you believe legal education goes beyond training lawyers."

Janie Magruder, Jane.Magruder@asu.edu
(480) 727-9052
Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law