Student Position Statements on Current Constitutional Conflicts: Teaching Con Law Applications, while Remote, and Encouraging Respectful Engagement

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By Angela Mae Kupenda, Mississippi College School of Law

This fall semester my Con Law students are remote from me, but very busy indeed.  I planned my course carefully, seeking to employ the usual learning goals and assessment.  However, I made some modifications to our remote platform AND given the intense societal disagreement we are vividly experiencing in America.  I used what I called Position Statements, that some of our alums helped me design, to create added opportunities for respectful engagement on major conflicts.  But first, I must explain how the course structure was modified to facilitate this exercise.

Course Structure Last Year

In the past, my course design was quite different, that is pre-COVID, and before we became more aware as a society of the intense conflict within our country.  The first component of their grade was documented in class participation, which counted significantly.  Students had to volunteer, though, to be on the call list for the day (which meant they were prepared with the entire assignment).  All students on the class list (whether I got to them or not) submitted weekly participation assignments and documentation.  I regularly assessed this work.  The second component was collaborative student group presentations. Student groups presented recent cases addressing contemporary issues. Thirdly, students completed a take home individual or collaborative essay examination. This was graded anonymously and generally counted 50 percent of the final grade.

Course Structure this Fall

 This semester, however, I knew I would be teaching remotely.  I was concerned about how to engage the students on Zoom AND how to engage them given the great disagreement we have in America regarding many of the constitutional law issues we would be discussing.

So, I flipped the order of the course, to some extent, to try to motivate them to study from day one and to stimulate more engagement in the remote classroom. After we covered the major concepts and principles of the course, I gave the students (1) an individual take home essay exam that tested on general principles, cases, etc.   Before the exam was distributed, I held a question session and responded to some questions by email, sending the responses to the entire class.  Before the exam we had a heart to heart, where some students admitted they had procrastinated in studying.  Pointing to the resources available to them, I explained that the take home exam could be a great opportunity for them to finally engage and learn what they had not earlier.  The anonymous take home exam counts 50 % of the grade.  I provided assessment by sharing my grading checklists with the students for them to use for self-assessment.  And, I summarized overall class performance on various exam parts as I graded.

After they completed the exam, students had another week or so to work on (2) the position statement that provided an opportunity for application of general principles to current constitutional conflicts.  This is discussed in detail below. It counts for 25 percent.  (3) The third component was the chronicle and commentary which is their record of daily participation and reflection on the course material. This is due at the end of the semester and counts 25 percent.

More on the Position Statements

 I greatly enjoyed engaging with the students by email or by Zoom as they thought about their positions on various constitutional issues and as they wondered aloud how receptive their classmates would be to the conflict they would explore and the position they would take and present in class. 

We are experiencing so many current constitutional conflicts in America. These range from who gets to determine if voters may vote absentee or by mail during a pandemic…to conflicts about the right to bear arms for nonwhites…to whether a governor can require the wearing of face masks in public…to Presidential messaging…and so on. So, they had lots of topics to choose from.

Now, in their Position Statement assignment, this is what they had to do.  First, they had to select a current constitutional conflict as an issue; and, they were to select a conflict that they felt strongly about as to their position. Second, they had to use news articles and other resources to give the factual basis of the conflict and to do an introduction of how the law we covered in class (and that they had been tested on in the early exam) related to the conflict. Third, they had to step out of themselves and discuss the other sides, the competing positions, the sides they disagree with, as every good lawyer and informed citizen should learn to do.  Fourth, they argued their position and provided support of how their position could resolve the conflict, and concluded.

The students covered all of this in a 3-page position statement they submitted to me AND in class, they will each make a 10-minute presentation and respond to questioning by their classmates and by me.

All of this is to help them learn more about the constitution and apply it to the conflicts we are having in America today. This week my students started delivering their 10-minute oral presentations of their position statements in class. Our week was very exciting, a bit tense, but my students were prepared, professional, and set an example of how we can engage on topics we disagree about with mutual respect.

Below is the excerpt from my syllabus about the Position Statement requirement.  I did not do a rigid grading rubric.  For this portion of the grade, the aim is that each student succeeds in a rigorous analysis of a current constitutional problem that we are debating as a society.  The syllabus requirements constitute the checklist I use in determining their success.  Where their application is lacking, my follow up questions that I give them in writing, require them to do a more careful analysis.  Both my questions and their responses are shared with the entire class to consider as they prepare their Chronicle and Commentary.

Following are the actual Instructions from the Syllabus

NOTE (1) Following the technical requirements indicated earlier in the syllabus and (2) according to the date following in the class schedule, (3) YOU WILL SUBMIT in a Word document (NOT a pdf) (4) to the Professor (5) by email attachment and (6) CC yourself.  

Your Position Statement should be 1 to 3 pages in length. 

When you present in class, you will have 10 minutes to present.  (The professor will facilitate class discussion after one or more presentations each day.)

Your typed Position Statement should include:

Your Name
Constitutional Law Fall 2020
Position Statement

TITLE

Type a title for your position statement (the title should be phrased to indicate the constitutional conflict/issue/problem AND to indicate your position).

FACTUAL AND CONSTITUTIONAL INTRODUCTION

In the first few paragraphs, you should provide some factual basis that indicates that the issue you are addressing is a current constitutional conflict (Meaning it is current (within the last 12 months) AND it is a constitutional issue AND there is a conflict).  In this introduction, you may cite with links to recent (within the past 12 months) news articles or events, etc., that illustrate that there is a current constitutional conflict. ALSO, introduce the constitutional principles/rules/cases, etc. implicated.

COMPETING POSITIONS

Here BRIEFLY discuss at least two different positions (other than your own) that could resolve this conflict.  Cite to appropriate cases, constitutional provisions, casebook, links the professor has provided. Here you are arguing the pros of the OTHER sides like a good lawyer should be able to do.

MY POSITION

Here you will argue your position and provide the basis for your position. Be clear and support with appropriate cases, constitutional provisions, casebook, links the professor has provided.

CONCLUSION

Summarize, then consider how your position could be implemented to resolve the current constitutional conflict.  Also, urge listeners/readers to join you in your position.

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One of my goals this semester is to help my students, who although are learning remotely, to take a soak in the law and not a quick shower. So they learn, apply on the exam, then apply to life as to issues that matter to us.  After all, our constitution says it is established for “We the People” and one of its goals is to “establish justice.” So, my course is designed to give my students a taste of this justice by inspiring their learning about our nation’s constitution and its application to the conflicts we are facing.  

Several of my former students and mentees helped me plan my semester.  My special thanks to Terry, Evelyn, Monica, and Tiffany.

For more about the students’ Position Statements, check out my recent postings to my YouTube channel that is designed to supplement my remote courses and educate the community about justice more broadly.  Subscribe and sign up for notifications to:
A Taste of Justice with Professor Kupenda
https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCfYGyl1mcKUT1iWC4WabCKg

 

 

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