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Federal Judges Support Civics Education Through Summer Teachers Institutes

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Teachers prepare lesson plans for their classrooms during a teachers institute in Chattanooga, Tennessee.

Teachers discuss the role of the federal Judiciary after observing a court proceeding at a teachers institute in Chicago.

At court-sponsored institutes across the country, classroom teachers are hearing first-person experiences on topics ranging from judges’ perspectives on judicial independence in their decision-making, to lawyers’ insights into Constitutional tensions between the First Amendment and national security concerns.
The programs are offered as teachers institutes by federal courts in seven states. At these professional development programs, fifth-grade through twelfth-grade teachers spend one to five days at nearby federal courthouses in-person and in hybrid formats to help elevate civics education in schools.
“I’m gratified that we can support civics teachers in deepening their understanding of the Constitution and the role of the federal courts,” said U.S. District Judge Mary Kay Vyskocil, who co-directed the Manhattan summer institute that included a segment on First Amendment cases and controversies. “The level of preparation, insight, and analysis that teachers bring to the institute sets the stage for the next generation to be informed participants in our democracy.” 
Participating middle school and high school social studies teachers often say they leave these institutes feeling reinvigorated by their interactions with judges, attorneys, and legal scholars.
“It was a pleasure to hear from people that have worked on important cases and their experiences in the judicial system,” said a teacher attending the program in Manhattan.
U.S. Magistrate Judge Sarah L. Cave, who co-directed the program with Vyskocil, said: “I was struck by the commitment of the teachers, who had just finished their school year the day before, and the next morning they were in a professional development class with us,”
To find an institute at a nearby federal courthouse, teachers can contact the federal courts’ national educational outreach manager Rebecca Fanning at the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts.
The programs are tuition-free, and teachers who register for some court programs can apply for continuing education credits.
Highlights of 2022 Teachers Institutes
New York City
The hybrid program at the Thurgood Marshall U.S. Courthouse in Manhattan explored cases illustrating conflicts between the First Amendment and national security issues throughout modern history, from the Red Scare to the Pentagon Papers.
Over the three-day institute, teachers interacted with judges and worked in small groups with scholars who mentored them throughout the program and made themselves available for future consultations. In addition to legal history and theory, teachers were introduced to a range of tools for guiding students through mock oral arguments at the Supreme Court. The program was offered under the auspices of The Honorable Robert A. Katzmann Justice for All Courts and the Community Initiative and the Justice Resource Center.
Seattle
The Judicial Institute for Teachers of fifth-grade through twelfth-grade students addressed qualified immunity for police officers, the U.S. Supreme Court, and judicial review. The featured guest was Mary Beth Tinker, the plaintiff in Tinker v. Des Moines. During the four-day program in Seattle, teachers also heard from federal judges, attorneys, and law enforcement. The annual event is hosted by the U.S. District Court in collaboration with Seattle University School of Law, which offers continuing education credits to participating teachers.
Boise, Idaho
A two-day program for high school teachers in the Boise area was on The U.S. Constitution, Tribal Sovereignty, and the Importance of an Independent, Impartial Judiciary to Preserving the Rule of Law. The institute was sponsored by the U.S. District Court, the Idaho State Judiciary, the University of Idaho College of Law, and Idaho Attorneys for Civic Education. Teachers observed federal and state court hearings, questioned judges and lawyers, and learned best practices for teaching court-related civics. A panel of federal and state judges discussed the topic: How Do Judges Understand, and Strive to Fulfill, Their Duties of Independence and Impartiality?
Chicago
Legal scholars, judges, and attorneys spent a day with teachers from the Chicago area going into depth about voting rights, past and present. The annual Judge John F. Grady Summer Institute for Teachers at the federal courthouse included a courtroom observation and debriefing conversations with judges and attorneys. A curriculum specialist and teacher helped participants explore how they could bring what they learned into their classrooms. The institute is co-sponsored by the U.S. District Court and the American Bar Association. 
Indianapolis
The two-day Federal Court Teacher Institute in Indianapolis focused on the federal criminal justice system and included courtroom observations of hearings. Teachers served as judges in a simulation of a sentencing hearing, then conversed with a judge about the sentencing process. A panel that included a federal public defender, a defense attorney in private practice, and a U.S. probation officer talked about their roles and interactions with defendants, prisoners, and their families. The annual program is hosted by the U.S. District Court.
Chattanooga, Tennessee
The Tennessee Chapter of the American Board of Trial Advocates (ABOTA) partnered with the Eastern District of Tennessee to host a one-day Teachers Law School at the federal courthouse in Chattanooga. Teachers observed a court hearing and participated in a debriefing with the judge and the attorneys. Teachers also participated in a courtroom simulation, taking on the roles of a judge, lawyers, and jury.
St. Louis
Teachers got a behind-the-scenes look at the judicial selection process in the federal and state court systems at the annual teachers institute in St. Louis. Under the auspices of The Judicial Learning Center, a panel of federal judges at every level of the system talked about their personal experiences and insights. A state court judge explained how judges in Missouri are selected. Mary Beth Tinker joined the one-day program virtually. While at the courthouse, teachers toured the exhibit at the Judicial Learning Center that features the armband Tinker wore at school to protest the Vietnam War. The controversy that ensued from her protest became Tinker v. Des Moines, a landmark Supreme Court case on students’ First Amendment rights. Teachers also learned about the inner workings of the federal courts’ appellate process. 
Upcoming in Spokane, Washington
On October 20-21, the U.S. District Court in Spokane will host a virtual Judicial Institute for Middle School and High School Teachers where educators will learn how to bring lessons about civil rights and voting, the naturalization process, and the role of the appellate courts into the classroom. Participating teachers also will serve as judges in a sentencing simulation during the institute.
Related Topics: Public Education

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