Keeping It Real: Developing A Culturally And Personally Relevant Legal Writing Curriculum

Author:Gail S. Stephenson;Linda C. Fowler
Position:Director of Legal Analysis & Writing and Assistant Professor;Assistant Professor of Legal Analysis & Writing

I. A Culturally And Personally Relevant Curriculum Explained A. Cultural Relevance B. Personal Relevance C. Other Considerations: Learning Styles and Multiple Intelligences II. Importance Of Relevant Curriculum A. Improving the Students´ Academic Success B. Enhancing the Relationship Between the Educator and the Student C. Empowering Learners D. Providing Equal Learning Opportunities E. Preparing ... (see full summary)


    Gail S. Stephenson,Director of Legal Analysis & Writing and Assistant Professor of Law, Southern University Law Center; J.D. Louisiana State University 1984. I owe special thanks to both my SULC research assistant, Ngoc Kim Nguyen, and my son and unofficial research assistant, J. Scott Stephenson.

Linda C. Fowler,Assistant Professor of Legal Analysis & Writing, Southern University Law Center; J.D. Louisiana State University 1984.

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As I learn from you, I guess you learn from mealthough you¥re older-and white- and somewhat more free.1 A commitment to student-body diversity is a requirement for meeting the accreditation standards of the American Bar Association and the membership guidelines of the Association of American Law Schools.2Currently, African Americans, Asian Americans, Latinos, and Native Americans comprise only seven percent of attorneys in the United States, but the Law School Admissions Council reports that all of its member law schools remain committed to increasing diversity in legal education.3 With increasing diversity comes the challenge to create a relevant curriculum that engages a diverse student body.

As can be learned from any basic education text, authentic learning- learning that is functional and meaningful-is most likely to occur when the problem, issue, or topic is tied to the students¥ lifeworld.4 John Dewey, the Page 68 preeminent educational theorist of the twentieth century, described this fundamental connection between education and personal experience as "organic."5 Dewey noted that the knowledge and skill a student gains in one situation "becomes an instrument of understanding and dealing effectively with the situations" that follow.6

Professor Fowler and I quickly learned while teaching legal writing at our alma mater, Louisiana State University, that students became engaged when the problems were personally relevant-i.e., connected to their world and frames of reference. For example, an objective memo based on the legal issue of forgiveness of student loans in bankruptcy led to a much more animated discussion than a similar memo based on breach of a construction contract. But it was when we both began teaching at Southern University Law Center (SULC), a historically black university with one of the most diverse student bodies in the United States, that we learned the importance of a culturally relevant curriculum.7

Professor Fowler and I have fairly monocultural backgrounds-we are fifty-something white women whose law school graduating class contained one black student.8 Our new classes at SULC were diverse culturally, ethnically, and socio-economically. Furthermore, Professor Fowler teaches in SULC¥s part-time evening program, where her non-traditional students add their own nuances.

The need to create relevant and interesting materials in this new environment sparked an interest in researching multicultural legal education.9 We discovered the issue had been addressed to some extent in Page 69 legal scholarship, most notably by Charles Calleros10 and Paula Lustbader,11but we found a lack of recent articles. We learned that most of the scholarship on cultural relevance focuses on students at the elementary and secondary school level. We believe, however, that the essentials of culturally responsive teaching-"to respect diversity; engage the motivation of all learners; create a safe, inclusive, and respectful learning environment; derive teaching practices from principles that cross disciplines and cultures; and promote justice and equity in society"-apply to all levels of education.12

This Article will introduce and explain the concept of a culturally and personally relevant curriculum, articulate its goals, describe how we applied those goals to SULC¥s legal writing curriculum, and suggest methods that others can use to develop writing problems that are relevant to their students.

I A Culturally And Personally Relevant Curriculum Explained
A Cultural Relevance

The concept of multicultural education arose in the 1960s with the Civil Rights Movement.13 Ethnic Studies programs were created for inclusion in secondary schools and universities, but these programs were predominately supplements to existing programs.14 In the early 1970s, schools began to incorporate multicultural content in their curricula.15 Then, in the late 1970s, educators realized "that the effective implementation of multicultural education resides as much in teachers¥ attitudes, interpersonal relations with ethnic students, and instructional examples and techniques as with carefully Page 70 conceptualized and well planned multicultural curriculum designs."16

Educators developed the concept of culturally relevant teaching based on research "aimed at understanding and mediating mismatches between students¥ home culture and the culture of the school."17 Initially, they tried to match teaching styles and instructional methods with different ethnic learning styles.18 This concept has been alternatively referred to as "culturally appropriate," "culturally congruent," "culturally compatible," "culturally responsive,"19 and "contextualized."20

Educators eventually learned that relating to students from different ethnic groups was more important than teaching specific content about ethnic diversity.21 Thus, culturally relevant curricula began to be developed-i.e., curricula that use cultural referents to convey knowledge, skills, and attitudes.22 When introducing new material, some educators began to use the information they had about their students to create curricula that provided instruction in a familiar sociocultural context and built upon the students¥ diverse learning styles by integrating the learners¥ cultural content.23 This cultural content includes much more than traditional notions of culture as the "social system of rules, language, customs, rituals, arts, government, expectations, norms, values, and ideals that people share"; it also includes "behaviors, assumptions, ways of doing things, ways of seeing things, methods of learning, methods of interacting, and how people relate to others."24

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B Personal Relevance

Personal relevance in education is sometimes referred to as "transferred learning"25 or "connected learning."26 The concept, however, includes more than a student¥s ability to connect the course material to his prior experience. A personally relevant curriculum connects the student¥s learning process "to who they are, what they care about, and how they perceive and know."27Teaching is more effective and students are more motivated if the learning is anchored in the student¥s cultures, experiences, and perspectives28 and if the curriculum is grounded in "the social reality of the local situation."29

Relevance is not tied simply to race or ethnicity; even in a classroom that is not racially diverse, topics of common interest abound.30 For example, Professor Fowler found that during the fall semesters, almost all of her students at both SULC and Louisiana State University are interested in football.31 And following Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, we found legal issues related to the hurricanes were important to all of our students.

C Other Considerations: Learning Styles and Multiple Intelligences

In addition to cultural and personal differences, curriculum designers should consider their students¥ learning styles and multiple intelligences. Individual ways of processing information and seeking meaning are referred to as learning styles.32 Learning styles are cognitive, emotional, and Page 72 psychological behaviors that evidence how one absorbs, processes, stores, and recalls what he or she is trying to learn.33 Some students are visual learners and remember best through what they read or see; some are auditory learners who learn best through what they hear; others most effectively process new information by writing it or by doing it, e.g., role-playing.34While some scholars find no link between learning styles and particular ethnic or cultural groups,35 others find certain styles common in a specific cultural group.36 However, some individuals within that group may not prefer those styles, so generalization is dangerous.37

Teachers need to use a variety of strategies to facilitate various learning styles to create the most learning-effective curriculum for a diverse student body.38 Using preferred learning styles takes...

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