Thursday, February 28, 2008

Debating American Justice

As we begin reading 12 Angry Men, I invited my students into a debate and put the following claim on the floor: the U.S. justice system is the best in the world. Given that my kids have direct experience with the American juvenile justice system, I knew this would be relevant and look forward to hearing what they think of the play, which I consider to be a powerful look at human weaknesses and biases, as well as human courage and integrity.

I think I was most impressed with the balance many students brought to the discussion. Many students thought that, while certainly not perfect, the U.S. justice system offers much that some other countries don't. One student raised the point of an article we'd read earlier on a woman in Saudi Arabia who was sentenced to 200 lashes for being raped. Another noted that when U.S. soldiers commit abuses or war crimes, they are (usually) charged. Certainly, students brought up the racial and class prejudices that weaken our justice system. If they hadn't, I would have. One student even noted that he sentence, he felt, was lighter that someone elses might have been since his family had the money to hire an excellent lawyer. But I was impressed with the ability to see both the positive and negative aspects of such a complicated and, for many students, personally painful subject. Not every student--or every person--has that ability. Not every student is willing to make a claim of what she or he really thinks and try to back it up; that takes some real mental courage. It's a risk to be real. But building critical thinking skills cannot happen otherwise. Growing as a writer, reader and as a person can't happen otherwise. This is the heart of why I give so much time in my classroom to discussion and debate, even though the "product" is results in is intangible.


LCulp said...

Hi Cheryl!
This month's Ed Leadership contains an article on debate in the classroom. Results are anything but tangible. One thing you can do (which you probably already know) is ask students to rate debates and turn that rating into a grade. Some people think it turns it into the grade race, but my experience suggests otherwise.
BTW: Have you read Earl Shorris's Riches for the Poor. I think you'd like it.
Please continue this terrific blog.

LCulp said...

Whoops. I meant "intangible." Lazy fingers or lazy thinking.

Cheryl Duckworth said...

Dear Iculp:

Many thanks for the heads up about the new Ed. Leadership. I haven't seen the Shorris work, but I'll check it out. I appreciate. it. Especially in my context here in the Dentention Home, sometimes students are only with me a few weeks or months, so a primary goal of mind is trying to send them back to their "home school" more confident and curious.

Anyway, thanks so much for the kind words.