August 20, 2009

"Our Courts" debuts on Web

Posted: August 20, 2009
woman's portrait
Retired U.S. Justice Sandra Day O'Connor. Download image

The first interactive computer game of "Our Courts," a new national civics education project backed by retired U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, grabs young teenagers where they live – controversy about the right to wear a band T-shirt to school – in a format they love – computer games.

The project (www.ourcourts.org) is a unique collaboration designed to teach middle school students about the judiciary and other parts of the government, using a Web-based learning environment.

"We at the Sandra Day O'Connor College of Law are pursuing an innovative new model for 21st century legal education, and at its core this model revolves around the idea that legal education is not only for lawyers. We need broad societal education on legal issues, and this project is a great example of the broader engagement we are pursuing," said Dean Paul Schiff Berman of the College of Law.

"Our Courts" is the result of two years of work by a team of professors and students representing the Sandra Day O'Connor College of Law at Arizona State University, the College of Teacher Education and Leadership and the Mary Lou Fulton Institute and Graduate School of Education at ASU, and the Sandra Day O'Connor Project on the State of the Judiciary at Georgetown University Law Center.

"Justice O'Connor believes that our population is woefully undereducated about civics in general, and more specifically about how courts operate," said Professor Charles Calleros of the College of Law and a member of the "Our Courts" curriculum development team. "She believes that citizens will support the independence of the judiciary if they better understand the nature of the questions presented to courts and the manner in which they address them."

In a four-minute video, Justice O'Connor greets visitors and explains the program. Elsewhere on the site, students can ask questions or send comments to the justice, see photos and read bios of the members of the U.S. Supreme Court, and learn about tribal governments and specific tribes. They can find out how other kids are performing their civic duties, and watch videos, produced by Calleros on the College of Law campus, about the legislative, executive and judicial branches of government.

And there are computer games. The first one, which debuted in August, is "Supreme Decision," in which the student plays a U.S. Supreme Court clerk who helps an on-the-fence justice break a 4-4 tie over a First Amendment case. In it, Ben Brewer, a fictional student at the fictional Hamilton Middle School, is prohibited from wearing a band T-shirt to school, because administrators fear it will cause arguments.

In the game, students listen to animated oral argument and discussions between pairs of judges, each of whom has a different perspective on the problem. They periodically engage in activities that test their ability to distinguish between, for example, clothing that amounts to speech and that which simply reflects fashion choices, and between political speech and non-political speech. Students have the opportunity along the way to adopt the position of one of each of the pairs of judges on particular facets of the problem, each time nudging the orientation of the court toward one side or another. They learn and make choices, gaining or losing points for correct or incorrect answers, and receive their score at the end. They can print or e-mail copies of the court's decision and watch a mock news report of Ben's story, too.

"We hope kids will play this at home, especially since parents are always looking for fun, engaging, stimulating, educational and safe Web sites for their children to use," said Abigail Taylor, executive director of "Our Courts."

The project comes on the heels of research that shows only one-third of American adults can name the three branches of government, while two-thirds can name at least one judge on "American Idol."

"One of the new developments since the advent of testing and No Child Left Behind is the emphasis on reading and math and a decrease in emphasis on social studies education, in general, and on civics education, in particular. 'Our Courts' seeks to address that," Taylor said.

The Web site also includes many free, helpful tools for teachers, including lesson plans on the branches of government, state governments and checks and balances, as well as resources to teach specifically about the courts, including for "Supreme Decision."

"K-12 teachers are heroes in our midst," Calleros said. "They are among the hardest-working, underpaid, underappreciated members of our community. They are constantly challenged to meet new instructional mandates without additional funding. They have too little time to cover all of the instruction and testing required by their teaching standards, unless they proceed with great efficiency. We cannot expect them to use our teaching materials unless our Web resources genuinely help them meet these demands."

The "Our Courts" curriculum is mapped to state standards and is available to any classroom, home school, after-school club or parent.

"Accessibility is important because all students, not just those who are in schools that can afford it, need to come to an understanding of the judicial process," said Elizabeth Hinde, a member of the curriculum development team, and Assistant Professor of Teacher Preparation and Teacher Education Campus Coordinator at the ASU Polytechnic Campus. "In fact, it could be argued that students who are in poorer schools are more in need of this curriculum since they have fewer opportunities outside of school to learn about the judiciary."

Nancy Haas, an Associate Director of the ASU Center for Civic Education and Leadership, said it is difficult for high school students to grasp important considerations about the judicial process without fundamental knowledge of it on which to build.

"It is not solely the responsibility of the parents, the church, the media, or any other educational source to teach about the judicial system," Haas said. "The responsibility clearly falls on schools, as it always has, to provide students with the necessary tools to become effective participants in our democratic republic."

Calleros attributed the youthful feel of much of the Web site's content to third-year law student Alison Atwater, who helped create it. Atwater, a former middle-school teacher and novelist, translated the team's ideas to kid-friendly language and presentation for the videos and helped produce the lesson plans.

"Our Courts" is funded by the MacArthur Foundation, the Knight Foundation, the Carnegie Corp., and the Qwest Foundation, among other public and private donors.

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