What’s Your Story?

October 6th, 2018 / By

I’ve been attending the SALT Teaching Conference, hosted by Penn State Law┬áin the aptly named Happy Valley, Pennsylvania. It was a great conference, with many thought-provoking ideas: I hope to share several of them over the coming days.

Here’s my first pass-along idea: Mariela Olivares from Howard University’s School of Law told us that she asks students in her Immigration Law course to write their personal immigration stories. When did members of their families arrive in the United States? Was the immigration voluntary or forced? What challenges did they face? What opportunities? Mariela allows students to choose whether these stories are confidential (for her eyes only) or can be shared with the rest of the class.

What a great way to engage students in the course content! As the course proceeds, students can reflect on how the laws affected their own family’s experience–and how that experience might differ under contemporary regulations. Even a class of 20 students will generate a rich set of stories that, if students are willing to share, could illuminate many corners of the course content.

This is also a wonderful way to build empathy in a doctrinal classroom. Empathy begins with self knowledge, and Mariela’s exercise requires students to confront their own history and feelings about the immigration system. Then, as students share their stories with others, they can begin to experience the system from a variety of perspectives.

I think it would be easy to expand this technique to almost every course in the curriculum. A Torts professor could ask students to write about an incident in which they or a family member suffered a physical or emotional injury. As with immigration stories, the exercise probably would generate stories relevant to every legal principle covered in the course. Which injuries could have been addressed by the tort system? Which ones were left out? Why? If the student/family member did not seek redress, why not?

Even courses about procedural rules could incorporate stories. Next time I teach Evidence, I may begin the semester by asking students to write about an incident in which a piece of evidence contributed to a decision they made–and they later discovered that the evidence was false or misleading. I won’t be looking for stories about the courtroom, but about everyday life. I suspect that the everyday stories may help me illuminate the problems with character evidence, hearsay, eyewitness identifications, and other evidence challenges.

So what’s your story? And how could personal stories kick off a course that you teach?

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