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UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. – When she came to Penn State Law, Olivia Thompson had dreams of using her law degree to help juveniles in trouble. Aleena Peerzada had no experience working with young adults. John Ball left a career as a middle school teacher to pursue a law degree. Ball, Peerzada, Thompson, and seven other Penn State Law students, all in either their second or third years and each with varying degrees of experience with youth, decided to take on a new challenge, both for them and Penn State, with the Street Law course, a collaboration between Penn State Law and the Penn State College of Education.
Street Law offers a dynamic opportunity to law students, allowing them to apply the foundational principles of the legal system that they have learned throughout law school to everyday life by teaching these principles to middle and high school students. It also gives them the chance to fulfill the obligation of a legal professional to give back to the community in which they live and practice.
In the Street Law program, law students act as guest teachers in social science classrooms in the State College Area School District (SCASD), with a licensed classroom teacher serving as their mentor. The semester-long course, currently in its pilot run, is participatory in nature for the secondary students, rather than lecture-based, and helps to demystify the law and demonstrate how students can apply its concepts to their lives, focusing primarily on the amendments of the United States Constitution, with additional international law components for comparison.
Street Law courses and clinics exist nationwide, and even internationally. The concept of Street Law at Penn State came up a few years ago, when faculty in the College of Education approached Penn State Law faculty with the idea.
Efrain Marimon, instructor in education and director of the Social Justice Fellowship in the College of Education, had worked previously in a Street Law clinic at another law school, and thought it would be a great basis for collaboration at Penn State. Marimon, along with Penn State Law Assistant Dean of Academic and Student Affairs Keith Elkin, began the process of coordinating the logistics of the course with the school district. They held an information session to gauge law student interest, where they did some of the actual exercises in which students would participate in the classroom. For the inaugural class, more applications than expected were submitted. From those applications, 10 students were chosen for the course.
“They are a great inaugural group,” Elkin said, “very diverse and excited about the opportunity.”
The course kicked off with an orientation session dedicated to the art of teaching. Topics included teaching strategy, classroom management, and a practice teaching demonstration. Elkin likened the teaching experience for law students to being in a courtroom.
“In both areas, students must conduct research, identify needs, and think on their feet. There is a script, to a point, but the real challenge is dealing with the unanticipated,” he said. “Student feedback is equivalent to a jury’s decision.”
For the middle and high school students involved, the goal is not to turn everyone into a lawyer, but to empower them.
“This class helps to get across the concept that the law isn’t fixed, but is dynamic; you can change it,” said Marimon. “It helps to develop future community leaders and teaches students how to engage in civil disagreement.”
The participating law students have found the course challenging, but inherently rewarding. The enthusiasm of the students they are teaching for concepts that most law students take for granted is part of the draw of the course, reminding the law students of their passion for the law. The “ah-ha” moments are the most gratifying.
“Listening to them make and form their arguments is awesome, where you’re seeing it come together for them,” said Peerzada. “I’m lucky to be in law school, and this is a great opportunity to give back to the community that I’m a part of.”
Most law students never expect to be in a teaching role, and this course takes them there in a meaningful way.
“I didn’t think I would ever care to be a teacher,” said Thompson. “But it’s so rewarding to see students who began the class very quiet and shy now feeling comfortable enough to want to participate because I’ve created that safe space for them.”
Street Law has also been a positive experience for students and teachers in the school district. Ryan Long teaches Democracy in Action to 12th grade students at State College Area High School with two Street Law law students, and he has enjoyed the co-teaching aspect of the course, and helping to guide the law students in classroom and time management. He also sees a change in his own students.
“The hidden beauty of the course is that it’s fairly apolitical,” said Long. “We’re looking at adverse situations where students have to walk in someone else’s shoes, and it makes them see things from a different perspective. That’s been dynamic.”
With the current success of the course, the goal of both Elkin and Marimon is to continue to grow and expand its reach, possibly to areas where access to lawyers is limited. The possibilities are truly endless.
“The best way to know a subject is to teach a subject,” said Ball. “Street Law encourages a dialogue, an explanation of the law to individuals who don’t understand it like we do. It’s rewarding, because you’re able to take something you know, and learn it from a new perspective.”