So You Think You Can Teach?

By , September 25, 2009 5:00 pm

by Cheryl Nyberg

Teaching and training library users are bread and butter items on the task menus of many law librarians. Since few librarians are born teachers, most of us have to work at developing and improving our skills. We worry about how to get and hold the audience’s interest, how to make our examples relevant to their experience, and how best to deliver information in a way our listeners will retain and use it.A panel of experienced librarians presented some useful techniques during a program at the AALL meeting this July in Washington DC: So You Think You Can Teach: Keeping the Audience Awake and Learning Alive. Nancy Johnson was the coordinator.

The presenters demonstrated their techniques in mini-lessons and concluded with a lively exchange of ideas.

Pamela Melton’s segment on secondary sources featured a video clip from the movie Fracture. Ryan Gosling’s character, an attorney, finds two California cases on double jeopardy with the help of Witkin’s Summary of California Law. Pamela includes clips of television programs or movies in most of her legal research sessions. In fact, she calls the class Legal Research Theater!

In her section on finding U.S. Supreme Court cases cost-effectively, Faye Jones asked each audience member to imagine the following scenario: You have finished law school and are starting a new job with a prestigious law firm. Michelle Obama has returned to law practice at your firm and you have been assigned to help her. She asks you to find a recent Supreme Court case involving the FCC and Fox News in which the issue of “fleeting expletives” is raised. Oh, and don’t spend the client’s money (no LexisNexis or Westlaw!). Faye went on to describe several free Internet sources for Supreme Court cases, including the Court’s website, Justia, SCOTUSblog, and Oyez.

Donna Nixon’s presentation on statutory research included a narrated PowerPoint slideshow created with the free version of Camtasia Studio and a “cheap” microphone. This type of tutorial is useful for “point of need” instruction. Donna also included a contemporary video clip from the Rachel Maddow show in which the federal “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” law was discussed.

Preferring “all eyes on me,” Ron Wheeler dispensed with all audio-visual aids. Admitting that he found federal administrative law a bit boring, he conferred with a colleague about an interesting example to use. The Wilderness Act of 1964 provided just the ticket.

The provision directing that “there shall be no temporary road, no use of motor vehicles, motorized equipment or motorboats, no landing of aircraft, no other form of mechanical transport, and no structure or installation within any such [wilderness] area” was the jumping off point for discussion. What were the implications of these prohibitions? No wheelchairs for the disabled! Further investigation revealed that, over time, Interior Department regulations modified the definition to allow the use of motorized wheelchairs. Ron emphasized the effectiveness of an interesting example in engaging the students.

Rhea Ballard-Thrower’s session dealt with DC law. She instructed her “posse” to “fire,” and the presenters all drew their (plastic squirt) guns. With this dramatic opening, she began a description of District of Columbia v. Heller and the District’s unusual legal status. Rhea described walking around the classroom, behind the students. Students never know when she will “take off” so they tend to stay focused on her and are less inclined to surf the web during class.

Rhea wrapped up the program with the following points:

1. Have a hook. Whether you use a video clip, image, or another tool, work to get and keep the students engaged.

2. Use current events and topics to help the students understand how legal research relates to what is happening in the real world.

3. Reward the students. Even little smiley face stickers on assignments get a positive reaction.

4. Move. Walk around the room to keep the students’ attention on you. If you can’t walk between the rows, have the students move. Give students material to read and have them stand.

5. Have a good time. Enjoy yourself, but be authentic. If you don’t naturally tell jokes, don’t force it.

6. Teach to all learning styles. You can’t do this every day, but consciously plan how to appeal to the auditory, visual, and kinetic learners throughout the course.

You can listen to this presentation via the new AALL2Go service. AALL members pay $12, non-members pay $15. The bibliography prepared by Nancy Johnson is available for free.

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