Law Related Education: Volunteer Spotlight

By Carey Shoufler

The Advocate recently interviewed retired Government teacher and long-time Law Related Committee member, Cindy Wilson to get her perspective on the state of law related and civic education in Idaho.

Carey: Share a little about your background and experience as an educator.

Cindy: When I first began teaching in tiny Pierce, Idaho in 1984, I found a big hole in student understanding of how local and state government worked. So, we began taking an annual field trip to Boise each year to see the legislature in action. Students raised money all fall and then traveled to Boise for a 3 day stay in the spring. I couldn’t believe what a positive influence this had on students, many who had not ever left north central Idaho prior to their field trip. That field trip continued at Pierce School until the school closed, long after I left there.

When I moved to Orofino we got students involved in YMCA Youth Government. Students participated regionally and then traveled to Boise for the state convention. We had several students elected Youth Governor and Chief Justice which meant they traveled to the East Coast to meet with students from all over the United States.

It was when I was in Orofino that I first became involved with Law Related Education. In the fall of 2000, I attended a workshop on The Supreme Court and elections. While there I learned about the Mock Trial program and we created a team to compete. I saw students from our small community become passionate about civic knowledge and activity and realized the importance of teaching and encouraging them to become caring members of their community while still in high school.

There are so many organizations like the Law Foundation that work to increase resources for civics learning. One activity I remember fondly was our annual mock trial performance. Students from the high school presented a mock trial of Little Red Riding Hood. Junior high students were the jurors in the trial, and elementary students came to watch. The local courthouse opened a large courtroom for us; we had local media cover the trial, and it became quite popular amongst our students.

We also worked with the local county clerk to put together a get out the vote campaign. Students arranged rides to the polls for people and worked with our school buses to take voters from the local assisted living home to vote. On election day, students stood on street corners all around town with placards reminding people to vote. Afterward, the county clerk came into our classroom and congratulated students for getting involved and raising voter turnout that day.

Carey: Share about some of the ways you think our Law Related Education program helps/enhances civic education.

Cindy: Since my early days working with students and watching them get so excited about participating in civic activities and especially the connection they appreciated in how adults treated them when they were involved, I’ve recognized that we have to provide hands-on activities for students to learn about the U.S. Constitution. Once students get the bug and become passionate (and they all do – every single one of them!) we create lifelong active citizens who make better communities.

I love how the LRE program offers so many opportunities for students. For example, the Mock Trial program gives students a chance to not only learn about how the law and courtroom works, but also to practice it. There is no better learning! When students actually DO it, act as attorneys and witnesses, they understand it so much better. It creates a chance for them to learn information not out of a textbook, but by actually experiencing in a trial. It’s a well-known principle of great teaching that having an audience and an element of competition increases student learning. That’s what our mock trial program does.

Our 18 in Idaho magazine is my favorite way to introduce students to their local government. At the beginning of every school year, I always started with the magazine and let students read through how state and local laws affected them when they hit adulthood. They really enjoyed the layout and information of the magazine and many took them home to share with their parents. We continued to discuss what they had learned in that first lesson throughout the school year. I want every classroom to have a set of these magazines so students can learn and understand the law and how it relates to them.

Our Law Day Podcast Contest is giving students an opportunity to show off their technology skills and meet them where they are. The complete traditional research on a topic, interview their sources, and then use their creative energy to create a podcast that focuses on a topic. Again, this is pedagogically sound in that there is an element of competition, audience, and also creativity, all principles that engage students in learning. I’m especially excited about this year’s theme for the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment and voting right and hope every student in the state will participate in it! And they can win cash prizes!

Carey: In the last couple of years you’ve spent a lot of time traveling around the state. What are some things you’ve learned about what kinds of support the students and teachers of our state would like from a program like ours?

Cindy: As I’ve traveled the state, I realize the truth about civic education: while it is happening in small pockets of some of our communities, it is stifled by a lack of information and resources and frankly time to participate in civic programs.

The recent emphasis on STEM learning is wonderful, but not at the expense of not providing education in the social studies. As No Child Left Behind began testing math and English, teachers put their emphasis on teaching that. We now have seen a new push for students to learn science and there are wonderful programs and opportunities for that. In fact, in Idaho the STEM action center is an entity of the Governor’s office and has a budget and partnerships across the state. There are so many resources available in this field of study now, particularly for our girls.

However, we don’t have the same resources or emphasis on civic education across our state. National research clearly shows a lack of information about the nation’s founding and documents that protect our freedoms. It also shows that a majority of young people don’t have a good understanding of how government works and that they don’t want to get involved in it or even vote.

As I said, there are pockets of excellence in civics and I’m seeing a renewed emphasis around the country with civic learning departments and associations being created in some states.

With the lack of school funding in particularly many rural areas, there is no money for buses to transport students and compensate teachers for the additional time spent outside of their regular duties to get students to participate in extracurricular activities that promote civics. Teachers are doing the best they can, but many of those who were active in civics in the 80’s and 90’s are retiring and we need to promote our activities and programs to new teachers and offer them the support that can help them facilitate the learning.

Carey: Can you share some info about the projects you’ve been working on for LRE?

Cindy: Our LRE Committee works hard to promote the programs we offer but it’s difficult in a state our size to inform all teachers about what’s available. One thing we’re doing this year is identifying schools and individual teachers in districts across the state and meeting with teachers one-on-one to explain the program, offer them a classroom set of our Turning 18 magazine, and assist them in creating a Mock Trial team or publicizing our podcast contest.

We’ve seen some success and real excitement from teachers and a willingness to get involved. This year, Boise High will have a Mock Trial team for the first time in years and we have interest from more Treasure Valley schools for next year as well as schools from north and south Idaho. It’s a slow process but more and more teachers are learning about what we offer and working to get it into their classrooms and the hands of their students. It seems if we can inform people and find those who understand the importance of project-based learning then we can get these opportunities to students throughout the state.

Carey: What information do you share with people – attorneys and teachers – when you are trying to get them involved with LRE?

Cindy: I like to tell personal stories of students who participated in hands-on-learning activities and how their interest in the law and respect for the US Constitution and their government’s principles were influenced by LRE. Every single student who was involved in civic participatory learning continues to stay involved in their communities today. Several of my former students have run for office and one just won his third term as mayor of Orofino. They still message me when they vote or want to discuss what’s happening in the news.

Every single child in Idaho deserves an opportunity to learn about their government and the law. The Idaho Law Foundation offers that through the LRE programs. We just need to get people informed about what’s available and then offer them the assistance to make it happen. Having been a part of so many of these programs for students, I KNOW they work to help students learn and that we can find time in the day to provide this for our kids.

I’d love to see everyone in the Idaho legal community work with us to inform individual teachers and students about what is available to them. It would make our network so much stronger! Oftentimes, all it takes is one passionate student can get something started in their school. Imagine if we could have every single school in Idaho represented? We could create an educated electorate in Idaho. How exciting!

Carey: Anything else you’d like to add?

Cindy: It’s so important for us to get everyone on board to help us spread the word about what’s available for kids today. Most attorneys and judges realize the importance of learning about the law and government. We need them to share how that can happen through our LRE program offerings.

Really, LRE is all about creating partnerships and working with community leaders and getting them and teachers connected to help students learn about their government and the law. I really believe in civic education.