Using Law to Teach about Life

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Nancy Schiff is a law teacher of a special sort– one who uses law to teach about life. She teaches high school students, not college grads, and she does not teach legal codes; instead she focuses on the unspoken codes of behavior that determine success in the adult world. Nancy is the Executive Director of the Center For Youth Development Through Law, a non-profit that runs an internship program for promising low income high school students at UC-Berkeley School of Law every summer.

Each student is placed in an internship in a law or government office like the Contra Costa District Attorney or the East Bay Community Law Center where the student is paid real money to do real work. Besides the responsibility of doing a job well, the student also has an opportunity to watch the work routines of successful professionals. You can only follow a dream you can imagine.

But the Center program also has an “academic” side of a very special sort. Last month I sat in on a class taught by Tatiana Fua’au on “Restorative Justice.” Tatiana wanted to know what “justice’ meant to the students, what institutions they thought we should demand provide us justice (“Is the family such an institution?”), and the standards they would like to adopt in having a conversation about these questions.

The students had lots of answers to her questions.”Justice” is about
“fairness” and “putting things right.” We should demand justice from schools, prisons, and courts (no one took up justice in the family). They also wanted a conversation in which people could disagree, and would also have room for reflection– and laughter. I was impressed with both the substance of their ideas and the enthusiasm with which they expressed them.

But, of course, the students were also studying Tatiana. Tatiana is now a Restorative Justice Coordinator with the Oakland Unified School District, but eight years ago she was a student in this very same program. She connected with the class. There was an audible murmur of agreement when she mentioned that when she was in high school, she had hoped that someday she would have a job “that was more than just a job,” something that she thought was “important.” And I imagine the students were asking themselves how this sophisticated and articulate young professional could have been a high school student eight short years ago. And maybe some of them were also wondering if they might follow a similar path.

I also visited another academic class in which the students were was preparing for a mock trial to be held later. Once again there was more than one agenda. The students were having lots of fun play-acting the roles of lawyers they had seen on television. But they were also learning the skills necessary to engage in a collaborative activity as well as the lesson that, if you want to be heard in court, you must phrase your question or objection in a very precise way.

At the center of all this activity is Nancy Schiff. One of her many roles is to counsel the students about the possibility of attending college after they finish high school. They seem to listen to her. Over the program’s twenty years of existence, almost all the students have gone on to college, and some have continued on to grad school. There are even grads of the program who are now members of the California Bar.

I have had occasion to attend many of the graduation ceremonies in which students are invited to address the audience; a common student comment is that the Center’s program is special because Nancy and her colleagues really think the students are special and by the end of the program, the students agree with that assessment.

Let’s not forget that Nancy Schiff is a lawyer, a graduate of UC-Hastings College of Law.Now she’s a law teacher– of a very special sort. Nancy has found her own way of making law a career where a “job is more than just a job,” an opportunity to do something really important.

If you would like to learn more about the Center (or even make a contribution to its work), here is a link to their website:

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