Letters from a Nut: A great book for helping LLM students with the MPT?

A year or two ago I saw some books left out in a box on a Brooklyn stoop for anyone to take. And from that box, I picked up the book Letters from a Nut by Ted L. Nancy (with introduction by Jerry Seinfeld) and added it to my LLM reading library.

The book is–and stay with me here–a series of actual letters written by Nancy to various businesses that express absurd problems or concerns with the business’ products or services, and the reply letters from said businesses attempting to grapple in a serious manner with said absurd problems or concerns. (Here’s a link to Jerry Seinfeld explaining it and reading from it on the Jay Leno Show.)

In other words, from my legal English perspective, it’s a linguistic corpus of business letters–hundreds of actual business letters written by real people using real-life business letter language, punctuation and formatting. None of that phony sample business letter template from Mr. Jones to Ms. Smith at ABC Co. on 123 Main St. that you get when you Google “sample business letter.” Continue reading

Encyclopedia Brown and the Public Defender

I’m a big fan of The Moth Storytelling Hour podcast and also of the Encyclopedia Brown series. In fact, I often encourage my LLM students to read Encyclopedia Brown stories as a form of extensive reading and a way to build some cultural background knowledge and think critically and creatively. (I keep a few of the books in the Reading Library outside my office.)

So, I was very excited this past weekend when I was listening to an episode of The Moth Storytelling Hour (a great resource for extensive listening, by the way), and the first story was by a public defender telling about finally having an Encyclopedia Brown moment in his legal career. My favorite line was early on when he observes that while Encyclopedia Brown is known for solving cases, the job of public defenders is actually to unsolve cases and put the mystery back in them.

Alan Gordon, public defender, telling of us Encyclopedia Brown moment.

Here’s a link to the episode if you’d like to listen: https://themoth.org/radio-hour/bible-bucks-meatballs-and-big-brothers

Side note: Lest you think that Encyclopedia Brown is uniquely American, I learned that Chinese popular literature actually has a sort of equivalent character named Judge Dee based on the historical figure Di Renjiecounty magistrate and statesman of the Tang court.

Using criminal law role-play to teach oral lawyering skills

Professor Anne Himes teaches courses on Criminal Law and Business Organizations in the American Law: Discourse & Analysis (ALDA) Program* for LL.M. students at St. John’s Law School. She has an English language teaching certificate from The New School, an M.A. and B.A. in German from the University of North Carolina, and a JD from Columbia Law School. She was previously a partner in the corporate department at Milbank, Tweed, Hadley & McCloy LLP, a premier international law firm.

*The ALDA Program specializes in teaching LL.M. students substantive law with integrated language support. All four ALDA professors have a combination of extensive language teaching experience and legal practice experience.

In the Fall 2018 semester I taught an overview of US criminal law and the criminal justice process for St. John’s ALDA students that culminated in a new court role-play activity I designed in response to student difficulties with the main course materials on the criminal justice process side of things: New York Times articles that followed the shooting of an unarmed man by an off-duty NY police officer from the time of the incident all the way through the verdict of the jury.   

Those readings grew out of my searching for a way to put a face on our criminal justice process. I have found that random observation trips to court are hit or miss at best and certainly cannot show a full trial, much less the full criminal justice process; the best trial observation experience I have had with my students so far has been hearing the full testimony of an expert witness.

I had my students read and study those news articles, and we had in-depth discussions of them, but those news articles got us only so far.  The students struggled with some of the language, such as taking words literally and not considering them in context, and had understandable difficulty with the cultural/geographic issues –  a road rage incident, with racial overtones, on the Fourth of July, in a rough neighborhood. In short, they seemed to be getting a bit bogged down.

I landed on the idea of having the students  role-play the crucial part of the trial they had been reading about: the direct and cross-examination of the prosecution’s main witness (girlfriend of the victim, who witnessed the killing) and the direct and cross-examination of the defendant, who took the stand in his own defense. The students would take on roles of the lawyers and the key witnesses in a case that they were by then very familiar with. Continue reading

The Art of Law and Language

I am very excited about three new posters that will be up in the Office of Graduate Studies soon on the walls right outside my office, and right by my extensive reading library.

1. The first is “Mother Tongues and Queens: The World’s Language Capital,” created by the Endangered Language Alliance for use in the book Non-stop Metropolis: A New York City Atlas by Rebecca Solnit and Joshua Jelly-Schapiro. The map explains that the Borough of Queens (where St. John’s University is of course located) is not only the most linguistically diverse borough in NYC, but the most linguistically diverse place on the planet! It can tell you where to find the largest concentrations of speakers of Farsi, Mongolian, Greek, Uzbek, Thai, etc. in Queens. And it also includes great tidbits such as “Riker’s Island, one of the world’s largest jails, holds new languages created by gangs to evade the authorities.” Not only a stimulating resource, but a welcoming symbol to all of our non-native English speaking students who come to St. John’s Law School.

“Mother Tongues and Queens: The World’s Language Capital”

 

2. The second is Pop Chart Lab’sPop Culture Primer on Parts of Speech.” And while I appreciate all the entries, I think my favorite entry is under “Nouns” where it shows the categories of Common and Proper and has a picture of the celebrity whose name happens to be Common under both categories, listing him as “rapper” as an example of a common noun, and also as “Common” as an example of a proper noun.

“Pop Culture Primer on Parts of Speech”

3. The second is Pop Chart Lab’s “A Diagrammatical Dissertation on Opening Lines of Notable Novels.” “From Cervantes to Faulkner to Pynchon, each sentence has been painstakingly curated and diagrammed by PCL’s research team, parsing classical prose by parts of speech and offering a partitioned, color-coded picto-grammatical representation of some of the most famous first words in literary history.”

“A Diagrammatical Dissertation on Opening Lines from Notable Novels”

I appreciate the language and graphic design of all three posters on a personal level and also like that they communicate the significance of language in the context of the legal environment, where language literally is power.

But my real hope is that students, when waiting in our office or in need of distraction, will engage with the language-related content in ways that are helpful to their own language development. In that regard, it can serve as a passive, non-threatening way to spark language-related interactions and conversations, especially with students who might otherwise feel reluctant to identify themselves as wanting language support. Because after all, sparking conversations is one of the main purposes of art.

 

 

 

 

What Should I Do This Summer to Prepare for My LL.M. Program?

One of my LL.B. students in China asked me what she should do this summer to prepare for her LL.M. program. Here is a longer, written version of some tips that I gave her.

  1. Make Sure You Are Set Logistically. You ideally want to have your housing completed before you arrive in the United States. Does your university have a Facebook/Whatsapp/WeChat group for student housing? I think arranging housing before you arrive is one less major headache you will have to worry about, and am always surprised when I hear students arrive in America and start the housing search as they begin classes. Dormitories are likely more expensive than off-campus housing in most university areas, so you may have to ask around to find housing from abroad. Another surprising expense is the cost of buying casebooks. Are you going to buy expensive new books or used books? Are there current students at your school who can help you with that?

 

  1. Get Introduced to American J.D. Students. I say this all the time, but it is easier to become friends with Americans you already know than to start introducing yourself in the United States. If you still don’t have any American connections, ask your law school to be introduced to an American J.D. student or two. Share some of your hobbies or the area of law you are most interested in so that the school can try to match you. I recommend asking to be introduced to rising 2L (second-year) students. The students who just finished 3L will be preparing for the Bar Exam, and the rising 1L students will already be worried about On-Campus Interviews (OCI).

 

  1. Speak With Your LL.B. Alumni. Find alumni from your law school in your home country who went to America for LL.M. or J.D. programs. Ask them what they wish they knew before they arrived, and what advice they would give a new student. Better if you can find someone who went to your undergraduate law school and the same American law school. Successful students will be able to share great tips on their experiences, in the classroom and outside the classroom. Ask your undergraduate school if they can help you. This way, you will make a connection that you may not yet have had in your native country.

Continue reading

St John’s LLM Summer Pre-Bar Prep Program

This summer we are excited to roll out our first-ever Summer LLM Pre-Bar Prep Program. This is a self-study program for St. John’s LLM students who are planning to take the bar exam in 2019, and it focuses on helping those students continue to improve language fluency as well as general and specific knowledge over the summer months.

The self-study curriculum will consist of:

1. An extensive reading program to build vocabulary, reading speed and fluency, and background knowledge.

  • Time is perhaps the biggest challenge for LLM students on the bar exam. It takes LLM students longer to read the questions and process the information. Additionally, vocabulary and background knowledge can be significant impediments to comprehension. e.g., A fact pattern that references American football. And the best way to “tackle” all three of these aspects is extensive reading, i.e., 1) reading a lot; 2) of texts that are easy to read (90% of vocabulary is familiar); and 3) and of texts that are enjoyable to read (because if it’s not enjoyable, then students don’t read a lot).
  • For our extensive reading program, we rely in a large part on Newsela, which contains a very large and constantly growing library of actual news articles and other texts, all re-written at 4 additional (and easier) levels. In other words, if an article is too difficult, you can simply choose an easier version to read. Or viewed from another perspective, there are tons of very easy-to-read and genuinely interesting texts which is fantastic for building reading speed and vocabulary. Additionally, Newsela has a trove of articles on law and American legal history and culture–all written at 5 different levels–including the Constitution, the Federalist Papers, Brown v. Board of Ed, and Plessy v. Ferguson. All of this content, including the non-legal content, is great for building the kind of cultural and background knowledge that American students learn growing up and that professors and test makers assume students possess.
  • Additionally, each article (and each level of each article) has a 4-question quiz that can be used to check and see how well the student understood the article.
  • Drawing on this resource, we put together a collection of law-relevant content that students can choose articles from each week.
  • Using the tools provided via our Newsela account, we can easily track the students’ reading and quiz scores over the summer.

Continue reading

Improving LLM students’ written grammar through listening practice

It sounds a bit counter-intuitive, but is it possible that a number of grammar issues we see in LLM student writing could be addressed by listening practice?

Missing articles. Incorrect prepositions. Dropping an “s” at the end of a plural noun or third-person verb.

What do all of these have in common? They’re all soft, unstressed sounds that are often reduced and connected with sounds from other nearby words. Say the previous two sentences aloud and notice which sounds are stressed clearly and which ones are soft, reduced, or connected.

Why does this matter? Because being a native speaker of a language essentially boils down to knowing what sounds right. Articles and prepositions in particular are notoriously challenging to teach in accordance with clear rules. They are very arbitrary and capricious, and if you look at article and preposition usage in other languages, you quickly see that. Did we learn how to use all these small words by studying rules? No, of course not. We just had a lot of exposure to what sounds right and it’s jarring to our ears when it sounds wrong.

So how can listening practice help? If LLM students hear these sounds, then it’s more likely that the voice inside their head will absorb them and start to incorporate them. The problem, however, is that because these are often soft sounds, students do not absorb them and incorporate them. When they are listening to professors or classmates or a tv show, they’re focused on the main content. Their ears are not attuned to the soft sounds if they aren’t already on the students’ radars. Continue reading