Monday, March 17, 2008

Getting Back To What Really Matters in Education

It's easy to get consumed with all that is wrong with K-12 education in general and the Albuquerque Public Schools in particular. All of us can argue, yell and stomp out feet about standardized testing, and huff and puff over who the APS superintendent should be. Yelling and screaming about such things does have a bit of a cathartic effect, giving us the feeling, usually inaccurate, that we are doing something about the many problems in education today.

And over the last few weeks I've huffed and puffed so much about the superintendent question, I find myself hyperventilating, reaching for a paper bag instead of really caring too much about what Winston Brooks thinks about evolution. I guess when you get down to it, breathing, whether literal or metaphorical, is more important than who the damn superintendent is.

A good example of "breathing" was just sitting and watching some of this weekend's State High School Mock Trial competition over at District Court. To "witness" kids eloquently argue points of law through logic, tact and considerable humor was inspiring. To see old students of mine "battling" each other using all of the above and more was enough to make me forget all about stupid questions about superintendents and Adequate Yearly Progress.

For those not "hip" to Mock Trials, it's pretty much what it sounds like. A fictional case is created (more about this later), including witness statements, facts surrounding the situation and background information on the issues involved. Teams delve into a case packet of roughly 100 pages for weeks, tweezing arguments for both sides and dividing teams into attorney/witness roles for both prosecution/plaintiff and defense.

After months of practice, a regional competition is held, followed by the State tilt I had the pleasure to witness this past Saturday.

My little teaching program at Jefferson employs mock trials as a major part of the curriculum. We spend two weeks doing a case in February, and then tackle another one for three weeks in April. The latter trials are called the "real" mock trials because we walk teams down to UNM Law School and use their "moot" courtrooms.

The middle school kids love UNM, with its swiveling expensive chairs and cavernous "courtroom" full of carved wood and other judicial accoutrement. Going back far before my time with the program, what is now my classroom has been going to UNM Law each April for over 20 years.

So I came to watch "graduates" of Jefferson who have gone on to high school and stuck with mock trials. Sticking is the right word, because the competition requires a great deal of time, something today's entrepreneurial high school student has very little of. Demands of Honors classes, AP classes, other extracurriculars and life combine to leave little room for anything like mock trials.

Unlike more glamorous sports, the fanbase of mock trials isn't in the thousands. The State Final isn't webcasted like the high school basketball tournament. One guesses that 90% of your typical school's student body doesn't even know a mock trial competition exists.

Yet there they were Saturday, dressed in power suits and skirts giving a small, but overflow crowd of onlookers a rousing display of argumentation and chutzpah. As the "feeder" school from Jefferson, the Albuquerque High team featured several of my old students. They went against Sandia, a team including another Jefferson "grad". In my myopic view of things it was classic My Classroom v. My Classroom, the only difference being the increased height and new grown sideburns of the students.

Being a competition, there had to be a "winner" and a "loser". A trip to "Nationals" was at stake, causing both nerves and brain synapses to be somewhat strained. Frankly, the whole "winning" thing is the only part of mock trials I don't like. "Winning" makes it harder to luxuriate in the simple pleasure of watching great performances. Given the chance to re-hardwire the human brain, I'd tweak with the whole "winning" mindset. But, to quote Reggie Jackson, competition is what puts meat in the seats.

Overshadowing the competition, however, was the simple beauty of all those minds at work. Both rehearsed and improvisational, mock trials combines debate and drama in an exquisite way. The performances Saturday were balletic, chock full of art. It was as moving to watch as any well-polished string quartet.

Thanks guys for a great show. And congrats to all of you, including the "winners".

Lastly, a quick mention of the Center for Civic Values, the organization that prepares the cases and puts on the State Competition. They do great work, and have been very gracious in allowing us at Jefferson to use their cases. Bravo to them as well for another well-produced "show".


Kelsey Atherton said...

Fantastic stuff! Always good to hear about smart kids doing smart things really well.

history said...

Thanks for balancing out things a bit with some reality. Your's is only one of hundreds of success stories in APS, generally lost in media reports on graduation rates and test scores. Sadly, public schools deserve so much more credit than given, which is why I appreciate your critical eye. So, catch your breath and speak truth to power.

Anonymous said...

Hey Scot, A great post, and a nostalgic one for me. Sorry I missed the competition this year, but surely there will be more ahead . . . See you at the law school on May Day! Mike (not very anonymous) Osborn