This past week for the frist time I did a full unit of syllogism and analogy activities with my legal writing students to prepare them for the concepts and language of IRAC-style writing. And it not only went very well–it also taught me something new.
Previously, I had taught the concept of IRAC (Issue, Rule, Analysis/Application, Conclusion) first and then had the students work on it through the Jogger/Banana Peel question. This question is the vehicle through which I have been teaching students IRAC-style discourse as well as the written language of that discourse. It involves a jogger who throws a banana peel on the beach after passing a sign that indicates a fine for “littering.” A police officer sees this and has to decide whether to issue a ticket, remembering that her supervisor did give a ticket to someone who threw a candy bar wrapper on the ground but did not give a ticket to someone who poured coffee on the ground.
In my approach, the students come to understand the IRAC concepts and signal words, but they still struggled in many ways with the underlying style of argument expected. For example, they would see the exercise as a simple application of a rule. The jogger littered; there’s a rule against littering; hence, the jogger should get a ticket. To not give a ticket would be to undermine rule of law and all that is good in our society, etc. Or, if they focus on the coffee and the candy bar wrapper, they make conclusory statements without really explaining or showing how those ideas connect. (Or rather, they don’t do it in a way that meets expectations for our writer-responsible writing culture.) Continue reading →
On Tuesday, August 1 at 10:15 a.m. I will have the honor of being part of a panel discussion at the Southeastern Association of Law Schools (SEALS) Conference. The panel, organized by Kirsten Schaetzel of Emory Law school, is titled “International Learners and Legal Writers: Pitfalls and Promising Practices” and also includes Marta Baffy of the Georgetown University Law Center and Catherine Schenker of American University, Washington College of Law.
I will be speaking specifically about ideas and approaches for teaching IRAC (Issue Rule Application Conclusion) discourse to non-native English speaking LLM students in ways that incorporate ESL concepts and pedagogy.
This is my first time attending SEALS and needless to say I am very excited amd looking forward to it as well as the chance to interact with and learn from colleagues at other law schools.
Here is a full description of the panel:
At many law schools today, the number of international students is increasing. These students come from different legal and educational systems and may have trouble understanding and learning the conventions of American legal discourse. This panel, composed of legal writing and English as a Second Language specialists from various law schools, examines areas in legal writing that may be troublesome for non-native English students. Beginning with an overview of cultural differences in writing conventions and expectations, panelists present how they teach different aspects of American legal writing. Panelists cover teaching summaries of legal rules and their various sources of law; IRAC discourse organization and answering essay exam questions; and understanding fact-pattern exercises and responding to them.
If you happen to be attending, then hopefully we will see each other. Stay tuned for a post conference report.
We recently decided to set up a Reading Support program for our LLM students. This was in response to a recent conversation I had with a student I had taught in our summer course who is now full swing into our LLM coursework. Her comment echoed the challenges that a number of her classmates have voiced: It’s hard to keep up with and comprehend all the reading.
One of the harder things to do in law school is take good notes. And even harder if English isn’t your first language. Why?
It’s not just about listening comprehension. It’s also about being sufficiently facile with English to write quickly while using note taking strategies such as shorthand, abbreviations, and symbols–all things that we native speakers take for granted.
It’s often assumed that LL.M. students know how to take notes already. Just not in English. Or when note taking is taught explicitly, strategies such as the Cornell note taking system become the focus. While organization strategies are certainly important and valuable, it is also important to not overlook the significant language-related challenges involved in taking notes in another language.
The Opportunity: There is a great treasure trove of lawyer jokes and legal humor out there.
The Challenge: How do you incorporate it into a class in a way that feels appropriate, helpful, and non-trivial?
The “Lawyer Joke of the Day” Activity is a simple activity that can stand alone or serve as a platform for more involved activities. The goal is to help students improve their comprehension in law school by building background knowledge and cultural awareness. Additionally, it is a form of extensive reading (more on extensive reading here and here) which helps build reading speed and vocabulary. And perhaps most importantly, it’s an engaging and entertaining form of learning for international students.
It can be very challenging for international LLM students to find ways to integrate into the law school community. It reminds me of a lesson I learned when I took salsa lessons about ten years ago. I was great in class. But being a man–the one generally responsible for leading–and being a beginner made it difficult to attract dancing partners on a live dance floor. It was a classic Catch-22. And sad to say, my name has never been associated with the great salsa dancers. (Or even the mediocre or poor ones.)
Turning back to law school, many of us in the “legal English” community like to contemplate how we can better help our students–particularly ones who require more language support–create more opportunities to interact with native-English speaking members of the law school community outside of the classroom.
Here are a few ideas that my colleagues and I have used or experimented with so far: Continue reading →
When I first introduce my students to the concepts of reading and briefing a case, of Socratic Method, and after they’ve had a chance to watch the clip from The Paper Chase where Professor Kingsfield asks Mr. Hart for the facts of the case, I like to share with them a helpful and humorous piece of advice from my Civil Procedure professor on my first day of law school many years ago.
The advice was: If you’re ever asked for the facts of a case and you’re not quite prepared or need an extra moment, you can always says, “Well, Professor, the plaintiff sued the defendant.”
While offering a nice chuckle and a good strategy in a pinch, it also gives students a useful lexical chunk to solidify in their brains. More importantly, it helps demonstrate to international students the expectation that a more detailed answer needs be provided when a professor asks for the facts of a case. And, if you’re so inclined, it also provides an opportunity to make the distinction between civil law (plaintiff + defendant) and criminal law (government/prosecutor + defendant) cases.
Credit: Louis Henwood via historyofenglishpodcast.com
A bit of a digression, but since July 2013, a lawyer named Kevin Stroud based in Raleigh, North Carolina has been producing the History of English Podcast. In addition to answering a large volume of “why the heck” questions about English language, Stroud is also an engaging storyteller, explainer, and organizer of the disparate strands of the history of the English language aided by an unpretentious, soothing voice with a slight Southern lilt. Interestingly, Stroud is neither a linguist nor a historian. (I had no idea until I was already about halfway through.) The podcast is currently up to Episode 72: The Dark Ages of English.
I learned of the podcast in Spring 2015 and began listening to it, mostly on my daily commute to work, and have finally just about caught up at midway through Episode 71: On the Hunt.
Despite my great appreciation and enjoyment of the podcast, I have to admit that it has not contributed to my “legal English” teaching in any direct way that I have been able to transfer into the classroom. But it does usually leave me inspired and excited about the field in which I teach–particularly when he references law-related words.
Try it out if you have a chance and share your reactions here if you feel so inclined.
Just like with self-improvement, you can’t change something about yourself unless you first notice and are aware of it. The same is true for learning language skills as well as skills for law school.
Law school is notoriously sink-or-swim. And the teaching approach tends to be very top-down with students expected to intuitively know how to absorb, analyze, and synthesize large amounts of information and then figure out how to present it in ways that match professors’ expectations.
This carries over into teaching international students who need language support.
They are frequently asked to do things like read cases, write case briefs and IRAC memos, and understand and recognize plagiarism. We ask them to take notes, summarize, paraphrase. But we don’t always recognize that these are in many ways actually vaguely defined tasks.Continue reading →
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The Challenge: Helping international students to better read and comprehend law school texts.
Solution #1: Recognize that successful reading is highly dependent on background information.
Take the sentence: “A-Rod hit into a 6-4-3 double-play to end the game.” If a baseball fan reads that, they know exactly what it means as well as what it implies. They can even picture Rodriguez’s head hung low as fans boo the highly paid star of the most famous baseball team who has been tainted by steroids allegations. If you’re an American non-baseball fan, perhaps you can figure out it’s about the final play by a well-known baseball player. And if you come from another country and have no exposure to baseball, then all you likely know is that some sort of game ended.
For all three people, grammar is not the issue. And vocabulary is only part of the issue, as a dictionary would only provide limited assistance in comprehending this sentence. The greatest impediment to understanding is “domain knowledge,” also known as background information.