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From the OJEN Blog

Connecting Experiential Learning to Law and Government Studies

As a pre-service teacher in the Greater Toronto Area I have spent countless hours in classrooms both teaching and observing over the better part of the last few years. Although I appreciate the value of textbooks to support learning, I feel that learning about the Canadian government as an 11 year old 5th grader would be a much more impactful experience if readings and textbooks were used more frequently in conjunction with a variety of others resources. If we want to engage our students in legal education we must strive to answer the classic question, “When am I going to need this?” Connecting real-life experiences to governmental studies is a fantastic way to demonstrate the significance of laws to students.

The growing importance of technology in our classrooms provides teachers with a plethora of electronic and online resources that can be used to enhance learning and engage students at both the junior and intermediate levels. For example, social media can be used – bearing in mind school board regulations and policy surrounding the use of social media in the classroom – to demonstrate ways that citizens can lobby the government to make a change in their communities. If students are learning about laws and democracy, why not have them support a cause and show them how they can help create change? Introducing students to current events and issues in the political realm will expose them to real-life issues and make 100+ year old laws relevant. From there, they may find a passion for a particular cause and choose to voice their opinions through social media outlets. Not only can platforms such as Twitter be used to reach out to various politicians and representatives, students can also start or sign existing online petitions to support a cause. Additionally, websites like Bitstrips for Schools are also electronic resources that teachers can incorporate. Bitstrips for Schools, in particular, allows students to create their own comic strips about countless situations and for a variety of subject areas. The most obvious way this site can be used to study law would be by grade 10 Civics students who are creating their own political cartoons. This would not only have students actively searching for a current issue to portray in their cartoons, but also incorporate an electronic source as well as a creative element. These online sources not only integrate technology but also show students that there are many ways for citizens to enact change and voice their opinions in their society.

As much as technology has become an important part of our lives, the reality is that many schools do not have the funding to purchase electronic devices, which makes incorporating digital and interactive technology into classrooms very difficult for some teachers. However, technology is not the only way to make lessons more engaging and relatable to students. Field trips to Queen’s Park and courthouses provide students with a glimpse of the inner workings of our legal system. Bringing these experiences back into the classroom with mock trials and mock Parliament sessions will help students experience for themselves what they have read in their textbooks and better process what they have learned on their field trips. OJEN not only coordinates visits to various courthouses but also facilitates visits of civil and criminal lawyers, among other legal professionals, to classrooms. Have the students ever wondered why their garbage bins get picked up every week? Their local municipal representative can explain that garbage collection falls under the city’s jurisdiction. Inviting guest speakers from various lobby groups, political parties or even community activists into the classroom can educate students on the various responsibilities of those who work in the legal system while exposing them to many different types of careers. Additionally, local police officers and firemen are also of great value to students. Learning who to call in an emergency and how abiding by certain laws, like having a working smoke detector, can save your life and the lives of those around you, will help students to understand the purpose and the rationale behind laws. In addition, the subject area that these guest speakers discuss can vary depending on the grade level in order to ensure the information presented is age appropriate and relevant to curriculum expectations.

OJEN also provides teachers with an abundance of interactive trips and activities that can blend seamlessly into curriculum. For example, one OJEN program asks students to consider a particular issue and decide how the problem could be remedied by a law. Students are then tasked with drafting their own law to address the concern. This provides students with an excellent opportunity to draw on their own experiences and discuss issues, like cyber-bullying, that are not only interesting but relevant to them. This type of exercise may also require teachers to provide students with background knowledge about drafting laws prior to completing this assignment. This activity can also be modified to fit various grade levels. OJEN also hosts a Poster Challenge for 5th grade students who are welcome to submit their posters about the Canadian Charter and democracy. These posters are part of a program called Creativity in the Courtroom that aims to promote creativity and community in courthouses across Ontario. The Poster Challenge is an excellent example of an activity that teachers can assign to students to create by hand or use as an opportunity to incorporate online or electronic resources. Mock trials and Charter Challenges are a few of the many thought-provoking programs OJEN offers teachers and students of law in Ontario.

Not only do the ideas presented above support curriculum expectations and supplement the textbooks’ teachings, they also encourage educators to differentiate their lessons, which will in turn make the material more accessible to a wider range of students. Educators must always be mindful of the diverse ways students learn; it is imperative that teachers incorporate as many different approaches to learning, whether visual, audio, kinesthetic, etc., in order to facilitate the academic success of their students.

Ultimately, the goal in teaching youth about our legal system is to instill a sense of importance in understanding the way our governmental systems operate. Learning about the law and government may seem irrelevant to some but I would find it very difficult to find even one aspect of our lives as children or adults that is not in some way impacted by government policy. Although elementary and secondary school students may not necessarily be aware of the degree to which policy and laws impact their lives as children, it is our duty as educators to help them understand that the law is an important part of their lives today, and will continue to impact their lives as they grow older.

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