Throughout his career, Norris Professor of Law and former Dean John D. Feerick ’61 has been a strong proponent of teaching civics engagement so that students better understand the law and their responsibilities as citizens. This year, the Feerick Center for Social Justice, alongside Fordham University’s Center for Educational Partnerships at the Graduate School of Education, has partnered with a local New York City middle school—bringing proactive civics engagement to teens and a glimpse at the legal profession.
“It wasn’t just about teaching civics, and it wasn’t just about providing the content of the lessons,” said Visiting Clinical Professor John Rogan ’14, who helped oversee the pilot program. “Our students’ creative ways to connect with the middle school students helped them think about how they can actually make a difference with the people they know and in their communities.”
Michael Chambrelli ’22, Marisa Gomez ’21, Malcolm Sanborn-Hum ’22, Brian Sarfo ’22, and Samuel Tureff ’22 volunteered to meet virtually with eighth grade students from the Bronx School of Young Leaders-Community School MS 331. When the partnership between MS 331 and Fordham Law School began to take shape, eighth grade social studies teacher Svati Lelyveld’s unit on voting in the weeks leading up to the 2020 presidential election offered the perfect opportunity for the Fordham Law students to offer legal perspectives and complement Lelyveld’s curriculum.
Designing the Curriculum
When Feerick and his colleagues began brainstorming ways to increase external civic engagement in the fall of 2019, they never imagined what would happen the following year. The coronavirus pandemic turned the world upside down and altered plans for how Fordham Law students could meet with local middle school students in a new civics engagement initiative. Nevertheless, the law students persevered as they worked to develop lessons that could be offered remotely to eighth-graders.
With topics like voter suppression, voter mobilization, gerrymandering, mail-in voting, and the Electoral College consuming the conversation before the election, the five Fordham Law students thought outside the box for their lessons. They experimented with templates and worked on different virtual platforms so that the middle schoolers had a variety of materials to work with and learn from.
The law students created pre-recorded videos that addressed particular themes, such as the importance and mechanics of voting, why 18 is the legal voting age, and voter suppression. Then, the eighth graders, Lelyveld, and the law students used the videos as a springboard for class discussions, addressing questions framed in a shared Google document. The Fordham Law students also filmed individual videos that explained their unique pathways to law school to inspire the eighth graders to consider a career in law.
These remote components, according to Lauren Kanfer, associate director of the Feerick Center for Social Justice, expose the teens to the law and legal profession in the context of voting. In addition, the eighth grade students were introduced to an educational pipeline program that can lead to higher education opportunities. Ultimately, she hopes this will help create even greater diversity among students pursuing a legal education and entering the legal profession.
Kanfer added, “It was an impactful program for Lelyveld’s students, who were excited to share their ‘voting expertise’ with family and friends to encourage them to vote in the 2020 election, and for the law students, who engaged in an important civic duty by educating future voters and modeling scholarly discourse for the eighth graders.”
What’s in Store for the Spring Semester
The virtual lessons created by Fordham law students were shared across four classes, reaching some 148 students during the month of October.
Then, following the breach of the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, Dean Feerick recorded a student-friendly video that explained the 25th Amendment and his instrumental role in drafting it.
“It gave me great joy to learn that the eighth grade students were eager to learn about our written Constitution and teachers were taking the lead in their education about the Constitution,” said Dean Feerick. “It is in the elementary and secondary grades those values are developed, in addition to an understanding of the components of the rule of law in our Constitution. What is true and what is not true is key to the future of our democracy.”
In February, the five Fordham Law students will continue to meet with the eighth graders and will engage in scholarly dialogue through an “Ask the Law Students a Civics Question” column. They will also virtually join Lelyveld’s classes for a unit focused on the idea of clothing as a human right and the power of organizing workers to advocate for labor and safety reforms. Later, in the spring, the law students will contribute to a unit focused on shelter.
“In our society, clothing is so important, but too often the people who manufacture our clothes are mistreated and are even rendered ‘invisible,'” Lelyveld explained. “We are focusing on labor and workers rights so students can get a glimpse of the social dynamics that are implicit in the clothing many of us wear.”
The law students will work with Lelyveld’s students on developing a policy brief advocating for worker safety reforms, according to Kanfer. The goal is to help the middle schoolers better understand the topic and hone their critical thinking skills.
“Obviously, the classes will learn different aspects of the labor movement and some of the terminology needed to understand the complexities of it. But, the cool part about this partnership is that they will also have the chance to figure out different ways of representation that, as law students, we are trained to do,” explained Sarfo, who is serving as the Feerick Center’s Amanda Rose Laura Foundation Education Law fellow and helped lead the pilot. “In our final project, the students will have the chance to work on something similar to a law school hypothetical and come up with various solutions.”
Law Students and Middle Schoolers Benefit from Collaboration
As MS 331 prepares for Fordham Law’s virtual return this semester, Lelyveld said her students can’t wait to see the law students again because they enjoyed working with them last term. She attributed that to the law students’ expertise and their ability to engage with and talk to the teens.
“The collaboration between the Bronx School of Young Leaders and Fordham Law has been very fruitful. Our eighth grade students are interacting with role models who show that lawyers are not just people in suits, but are real people who work hard and care about society. The students are interacting with a wider range of people, learning new vocabulary, and enhancing their communication skills,” Lelyveld said.
“Thanks to the example of the law students, the eighth graders are seeing that hard work and dedication to social justice can turn into a full-time career.”
Sarfo knows he and his classmates will continue to benefit from this meaningful work because they’ll still be learning new things from the intellectually curious students. “Yes, we’re here to help these students, but we’re also here to grow and learn from them, too,” he said.
“Fordham’s community goes beyond the Lincoln Center campus, and it’s been awesome to give back. It’s been so inspiring, to me, that we can make sure these students are equipped with some of the knowledge we have, as well as understand the nuances of the things happening around them.”