The graduate students were huddled around a desk, sharing notes, going over prepared remarks. Their clothes and their collective demeanor had a businesslike air. If they looked slightly nervous, it was because they were getting ready to address an audience that not only included their professor and fellow classmates, but also a state Superior Court judge.
The students, all enrolled in the Graduate School of Education, were getting ready to take part in mock bail hearings at the Superior Courthouse in Lowell. Their goals were to successfully argue their case in four minutes or less and more importantly to use the courtroom experience to enrich the teaching of history to middle and high school students.
“In such a professional setting, a lot was demanded of the students,” said Asst. Prof. Pat Fontaine. “It was a daunting task but it was important for them on a confidence level.”
“Preparation here is more intense here than just going before the class,” said Chris Dussort, who is enrolled in Fontaine’s Curriculum Instruction and Teaching History course.
The courthouse class, held at night when the court was not in session, was led by Superior Court Judge John Lu and Robert Clayman, executive director of the Massachusetts Judges Conference. Before starting the bail hearings, they gave an overview of how the court works, discussed the history of bail and its role in judicial proceedings -- and even invited the students up to the judge’s bench for a look.
“We are in a building that has a rich history. Everything we do here is to help you learn as a teacher,” Lu told the group. “You can turn your classroom into a court room in just a few minutes.”
The courtroom session was the first time Fontaine has incorporated mock bail hearings into her course. When the Judges Conference suggested working together, she jumped at the chance to give students the opportunity to learn and present their work in a real-world setting. The students were divided into groups, some representing the prosecution, others the defense. They were given specifics of different cases and had to present their arguments for or against bail to the court. Two students acted as judges, weighing the arguments before delivering a decision.
“This experience gave us a sense of place and of the important role of the judiciary,” said Fontaine. “The students have to think about what their rights and responsibilities are as a citizen of a democracy.”
Translating Courtroom to Classroom
After their courtroom session, the students were assigned papers on how they will apply the experience to classroom teaching. For Clayman, the courtroom class opened a dialog that the Judges Conference hopes will help to broaden understanding of the judiciary’s role in American history.
“The judiciary is probably the least understood branch of the government,” said Clayman. “