Summer Teaching: a Time to Relax and Listen to the Students

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By Sandra Simpson, Gonzaga University School of Law

I volunteered to teach Legal Writing III this summer to take some load off of the fall enrollment and to get back into the swing of teaching legal writing. I will be returning to legal writing part-time in the fall while still maintaining my position as the associate dean of academic affairs. It felt good to get back into the legal writing classroom: a feeling of coming home if you will. My students have just finished drafting and receiving feedback on their client demand letters and are knee deep in understanding summary judgment motions. They had drafted outlines of their arguments and research for me to review. After reviewing them, it was clear to me that, as I expected, they were struggling with melding the elements of the tort with the standard on summary judgment.

Over the weekend, I plowed through mountains of examples and exercises I have used over the years to help the students put together the pieces of summary judgment and elements of the underlying law. The methods I have used in the past just did not seem to be what I needed. Frustrated and tired on Sunday night (I teach on Monday mornings), I threw in the towel. I had no idea how to bring together their struggles. I had a lesson plan: two hours of exercises designed to reach all types of learners; exercises designed to engage the learner. As I lay in bed with ideas swirling around in my head, the thought came to me. What about letting the students dictate how the class will run by expressing their needs. I was on to something.

The next morning on my morning run, I put the pieces together in my head. I began class with a simple question: what did we do last week and what do you still need in order draft your summary judgment documents for next week. What flowed from that was magic in my teaching book. Their needs and questions ranged from the substantive to the very technical court rule questions to the simple regarding where to find the forms. My mind quickly organized a plan of attack. We started with substantive and moved toward the technical and the simple. My strategy was to tackle the hard stuff first. It was the first class of the summer which I felt really out of control of the substance and the structure of the class. It was also the first time there was high energy in the room and a sense of community. The lesson learned from this class is to step back every few weeks and listen to the students and give them what they think they need not what you think they need.

Institute for Law Teaching and Learning