Street Law Teaches D.C. Students to Argue (the Right Way)

GW Law student group informs middle school students about the justice system, their legal rights and their roles in the community.

GW Law Street Law Program
GW Law first-year student Gil McDonald (front) and second-year student Dennis Hui advise D.C. school students in their roles as judges in moot court. (Ryan Travitz/GW Today)
December 04, 2015

By Ryan Travitz

Three GW Law students stood in front of a classroom at School Without Walls at Francis-Stevens near the end of a recent school day to talk about voting rights in the United States. The question they put to the 20 middle school students was simple:

Should the United States lower the voting age?

Third-year law student Jude Nwaokobia and first-year law students Gil McDonald and Tasha Pulvermacher divided the students into three groups. Mr. Nwaokobia helped one group question and judge the other two groups, whom Mr. McDonald and Ms. Pulvermacher prepared to argue both sides of the question.

Teaching the D.C. school students how to construct and present arguments is one of the most important parts of the classroom lessons imparted by the Street Law student organization. Members of the GW Law group, which includes Mr. Nwaokobia, Mr. McDonald and Ms. Pulvermacher, go to the middle school classroom every other week during the semester to help sixth- through eighth-grade classes learn about the justice system, their legal rights and civic responsibilities.

"The kids love the program. They're learning how to do the research and then debate in a positive way," said CeCe Ogunshakin, a D.C. public school teacher who oversees the Street Law visits.

In the lesson on voting rights, the D.C. school students improved their arguments over the course of the lesson.

Early on, one group relied on a general example about a teenage cousin who was "definitely not ready to vote." By the end of the class, the same students raised more specific points about the influence of parents on dependent voters and age requirements of other civic responsibilities such as military service.

At the end of November, the classroom lessons culminated with a visit to GW Law for a formal moot court argued and judged by the students from Francis-Stevens. The argument was whether the First Amendment's promise of free speech covers the symbolic speech of public school students.

Just like in the classroom sessions, Street Law divided the students into sides and helped them reason through compelling arguments. Dressed in black, judicial robes, five student-judges listened to their classmates’ ideas for a half-hour before deciding in favor of protecting the students' speech.

After the session, one Francis-Stevens student reflected on the practical knowledge she had gained in her time with GW Law students.

"I like Street Law because it actually gives you an idea of what you might have to deal with when you get older," said MyAja Rush, who is in seventh grade. "Like if you find an issue, and you don't really know how to address it, [learning] from Street Law, I think, will help us in knowing our rights when we get older, so that if we ever come across issues like the one we had today, we'll know how to handle it."

Ari Cannon, a sixth grader, already was thinking about going to law school himself. "I think [Street Law] will help us in the future if we want to become a lawyer. It will help us to know our amendments," he said.

The D.C. public school students are not the only beneficiaries of the program.

"It's a great way to get involved with the local community," Mr. McDonald said. "Also, teaching to these middle schoolers really tests your ability to take complex legal issues and distill them down to the essential elements. I've definitely improved at that since starting the program."

There are opportunities for GW Law students to get involved with Street Law each semester, both with the public school lessons and in a program with a juvenile detention center in D.C. Street Law volunteers choose their own levels of involvement with the bi-weekly classroom sessions, events such as the on-campus moot courts and other education programs.

Mr. Nwaokobia, Street Law's co-president, encourages GW Law students interested to sign up.

"Street Law is a fantastic group, because it will enable you to contribute to the D.C. community," he said. "It takes you away from the stress of law school for a couple hours to serve the youth of our community.”