Sunday, May 16, 2010

Our Courts

A few days ago, I read an interview somewhere...I can't seem to figure out where...with Sandra Day O'Connor, who was talking about her retirement project, the website, The site, which has been running for a couple of years, aims to remedy what O'Connor sees as a deficiency in civic education by presenting material on civics and law for middle school students and teachers.

I will confess, we have not yet read much of the really informative stuff on the site. But we have played and learned from some of the games on the site, which are designed to be used in conjunction with classroom materials -- lesson plans are also offered on the site. The games seem perfectly suited to his level as a gifted 3rd grader, but are also kind of fun for me to play. My last civics lesson was in high school government class my senior year. I spent most of the class trying to stay awake and listening to the kid next to me tell stories about working in his family's funeral home. The one useful thing I learned in that class was how to file my taxes. I do thank my government teacher every year for that. But there's plenty for me to learn.

AJ hasn't shown any special curiosity about the law and courts, so I wasn't sure how he'd take to this. But he likes computer games and I thought the cartoon characters and basic animation would attract him. I also knew that he'd talked about Brown v. The Board of Education in school as part of a Martin Luther King Day unit. I noticed that one of the games, "Argument Wars," included that case as one of the options.

Tonight I tried out the Brown v. BOE version of "Argument WArs" on AJ and not only did he have fun, but the game really got him thinking about different ways to interpret text. We had a discussion about how "separate but equal" could have been considered constitutional. He had to put together evidence to make his case for Brown. He did an excellent job and he learned about the case, about legal procedures, about the interpretation of law, and about making an argument. When he'd finished the game, which took about 10-15 minutes to play, he wanted to try again with another case right away. Unfortunately for him, it was bedtime. But we'll be revisiting it soon.

There are two other games on the site, which AJ has yet to explore. "Do I Have A Right?" allows you to set up your own law firm -- staff it with people with a variety of specialties, match client cases with lawyers with the correct specialties, take care of waiting clients, etc. It's maybe not quite as specifically informative as "Argument Wars," but it still requires some critical thinking, particularly in the area of client-attorney matching. The clients come in with stories like, "I organized a protest in a public park because I think kids should have the right to get their drivers licenses when they are 12. Do I have a right?" You have to decide whether the client has a case. If you think so, then you need to match him/her with an attorney who specializes in the proper area of the law (all the lawyers I used were focused on a particular Bill of Rights amendment). Out of this part of the game, you learn what the various amendments are and you have to figure out how to categorize the cases. But you also have to figure out how to run the law firm as a business. You need to diversify your staff, to win enough cases to allow you to hire more lawyers. You also have to provide your lawyers with a good working environment, or they don't win as many cases. And you need to provide a pleasant waiting area for your clients, or else they storm out with the word RAGE steaming over their heads. My favorite part of this game, though, is the fact that all attorney-client conversation is characterized as "yadda yadda yadda." Every lawyer I've mentioned this to has said, "Yeah, that sounds about right."

The third game, "Supreme Decision" takes you inside the workings of the Supreme Court. A judge escorts you through an initial hearing and afterwards tells you that the other 8 judges have split their decision and that she needs you to cast the deciding vote. You then have to eavesdrop on the other judges who have broken into four pairs, each discussing another aspect of the case. You have to demonstrate that you understand the issues each pair is discussing and that you know which side is supporting which party to the suit. Then you get to vote for which argument you think is the more compelling.

AJ and I agreed that all three games are more interesting, more fun and more educational than most "educational" games out there. The only drawback we can see is that it appears that game options might be too repetitive for replay to be much fun -- once you've visited all the cases on "Argument Wars," for instance, there might not be enough to interest you to come back for more. But these games are well suited as curriculum enhancement, which is what they were designed for. And if it gets my 9-year-old thinking in some new directions, it's definitely worth a visit.

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