San Marcos,
14:18 PM

Fourth Graders go to Court for CSUSM Literacy and the Law Project

By David Ogul

Several jurors busied themselves by playing pat-a-cake before stepping into the courtroom. The judge, sporting an oversized black robe draped over a red T-shirt and baggy jeans, did his best not to crack a smile as the hearing was about to begin. A key defense witness stepped off the stand and headed back to her seat in the spectators’ gallery while still under cross-examination.

No, this wasn’t your typical trial. The October 8 proceedings in Department 20 at San Diego Superior Court marked a crucial test of CSUSM Associate Professor Fran Chadwick’s work with a class of homeless fourth graders to change the way civics is taught in public schools. Chadwick’s `Literacy and the Law’ project brings lessons in line with Common Core state standards in persuasive writing and includes content standards in theatre, English language arts, history and social science, culminating in a mock trial in which a character from a book, play or current event has his or her day in court.

Over the previous weeks, fourth graders at San Diego’s Monarch School for the homeless had read David Shannon’s popular No, David! books and were asked to analyze accusations that the title character had stolen a batch of stickers from his teacher. On this day, David was put on trial, with Monarch School fourth graders playing the role of judge, jury, prosecutor, defense attorney, witnesses and the accused.

“We are teaching students about the rule of law, about being innocent unless proven guilty, issues of impartiality, and about making decisions based on the available facts and not based on someone’s opinion of a particular character,” Chadwick said.

Why target fourth graders at the Monarch School for the test run?

“We need to reach all youth, and youth from lower socioeconomic backgrounds are less likely to have any experiences with civics at all,” Chadwick said.

Chadwick has been working with Monarch School instructor and former San Diego County Teacher of the Year Stephen Keiley. San Diego’s Monarch School for the homeless and those at risk of becoming homeless is the only school of its kind in the country. Many of Keiley’s students live in homeless shelters, motels, cars, or find a roof to sleep under by couch surfing.


“I’ve never done anything like this on this level before,” Keiley said before the mock trial got under way. “But this is very impressive. It brings real-life situations to our kids, it opens up new vocabulary, a new understanding about the legal process and it also opens their eyes to new career possibilities.”

Chadwick is hoping to put the finishing touches by the end of the year on a new website that will serve as a ‘Literacy and the Law’ resource, complete with reference material and lesson plans, for instructors interested in adopting the teaching strategy that culminates with a mock trial.

Such project-based learning and providing quality civics resources for teachers is one of the recommendations of the California Task Force on K-12 Civic Learning, which has recently published `Revitalizing K-12 Civic Learning in California, a Blueprint for Action.’ Chadwick, who teaches in CSUSM’s School of Education, served as an advisor to the task force that was supported by State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson and California Supreme Court Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye. Literacy and the Law’s advisory board consists of a who’s who of experts in law and education, including Sacramento County Superintendent of Schools David Gordon, Fourth District Court of Appeals Justice Judith McConnell, and lawyer and USD law professor Lynne Lasry.

Other lesson plans in the testing stage elsewhere in the state include a court case, Gurdev Kaur Cheema vs. Harold Thompson, which dealt with the constitutional right of freedom of religion for the Cheema children, who were kept from attending school while wearing a `kirpan,’ one of the items of faith they must wear as part of their Sikh religion. A third lesson plan involves the historical fiction `Journey to Topaz’ by Yoshido Uchida, which follows a family through its experience as Japanese-Americans sent to an internment camp during World War II and its subsequent return home after the war.

“Honestly, I was a little hesitant at first to implement this kind of a lesson plan at this grade level,” Keiley said. “But by using age-appropriate literature, we’re making it work. We’ve taken a children’s book and dug deeper to look at what it means to be accused, what it means to be charged with a crime and what the criminal justice system involves.”