Some Educators See Learning Opportunity in Supreme Court’s Phone Arguments

By Mark Walsh — May 01, 2020 4 min read
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The U.S. Supreme Court has some fresh content to offer starting next week to harried teachers and students struggling with remote learning: 10 hours of oral arguments, to be conducted over the telephone because of the pandemic.

The historic arguments in cases involving the Electoral College, President Donald Trump’s financial records, religious schools, and other matters have built buzz in the legal community, both because of the technology the justices will use and the fact that the court is offering live access to the audio.

In education, where teachers, parents, and students have grappled with remote technology and other challenges caused by the coronavirus pandemic, only a relative handful of social studies and civics educators and their students are anticipating the two weeks of unusual arguments. But some of them are stoked.

“I’m a self-proclaimed Supreme Court nerd, and that side of me was like, ‘Oh, my gosh,’” said Trish Everett, who teaches political science at the private Pine Crest School in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. “Making the arguments publicly available in real time is monumental.”

“Being able to take advantage of this rare historic moment is an amazing opportunity educationally,” said Everett. “I’m a big proponent of the idea that if I’m excited about something, my students will get excited.”

Ali Spagnolo, a 16-year-old junior at Massapequa High School on New York’s Long Island, has been studying Supreme Court cases as part of her government class, now conducted remotely of course. She plans to listen to some of the arguments live.

“Because they’re letting people listen to them live, I think will be incredibly interesting,” she said.

Her government teacher, Dan Bachman, said that a handful of his students will listen to arguments live during the first batch of cases next week. Many of his other students are studying for the Advanced Placement U.S. Government and Politics test, which will be conducted online on May 11.

“I was able to find four of my kids who don’t have the AP exam,” Bachman said, adding that he may set up Zoom sessions during the arguments or after to discuss with his students how the justices and lawyers fared.

Aimee Alexander, a history teacher at North Country Union High School in Newport, Vt., said the May argument session begins the same day she is starting to teach her students about the judicial branch.

Remote learning “has been super condensed” and she feels lucky to get two or three hours per week with students in a particular course. Most of her students are probably not ready to dive into the live arguments.

“But I do have some eager beavers who plan to listen,” she said.

Everett, Bachman, and Alexander are alumni of the Supreme Court Summer Teachers Institute, a weeklong event that draws social studies and civics instructors to Washington near the end of the court’s term in June. Participants hear from lawyers who regularly argue, they hold a mock oral argument, and they get to attend sessions of the court when opinions are announced.

This year, because of the pandemic, the court is not holding any sessions in its courtroom, and the Summer Institute has been canceled. Instead, StreetLaw, the institute’s sponsor (along with the Supreme Court Historical Society), has developed learning materials focused on the unusual May argument session.

“There was no way we could have 30 educators gathering in June in D.C.,” said Lee Arbetman, the executive director of StreetLaw and the co-director of the institute. “We have pivoted to these arguments.”

Cathy Ruffing, a former classroom teacher and the other co-director, said that teachers who attend the summer institute come with special interest in the Supreme Court and leave it with an almost fanatical devotion to the institution.

“Among the teachers we work with, there is definitely a buzz” about the telephone arguments, she said.

StreetLaw is steering educators to focus on one of the last cases of the May argument session, Chiafalo v. Washington, about whether states may punish “faithless electors,” those who cast votes in the Electoral College that go against the U.S. presidential popular vote in their state. The case will be argued May 13, along with a companion case from the state of Colorado.

Ruffing will participate in a webinar previewing the case that is aimed at a middle school audience. The webinar for Chiafolo will take place May 11 on SCOTUSBlog, which is holding similar webinars for all cases in the May session, with some aimed at a law school audience and a few others meant for meant for middle or high school students. (Disclosure: I contribute to SCOTUSBlog, but I’m not involved in the webinars.)

The Supreme Court, perhaps concerned that its website might not be able to handle a flood of listeners, is making the live audio feed available to a press pool. C-SPAN plans to present the feed on its various platforms including TV, web, and its radio app for cellphones.

A version of this news article first appeared in The School Law Blog.