Academic journal article The Journal of Gender, Race and Justice

Keeping It Real: Developing a Culturally and Personally Relevant Legal Writing Curriculum

Academic journal article The Journal of Gender, Race and Justice

Keeping It Real: Developing a Culturally and Personally Relevant Legal Writing Curriculum

Article excerpt

A commitment to student-body diversity is a requirement for meeting the accreditation standards of the American Bar Association and the membership guidelines of the Association of American Law Schools.2 Currently, African Americans, Asian Americans, Latinos, and Native Americans comprise only seven percent of attorneys in the United States, but the Law School Admissions Council reports that all of its member law schools remain committed to increasing diversity in legal education.3 With increasing diversity comes the challenge to create a relevant curriculum that engages a diverse student body.

As can be learned from any basic education text, authentic learning-learning that is functional and meaningful-is most likely to occur when the problem, issue, or topic is tied to the students' lifeworld.4 John Dewey, the preeminent educational theorist of the twentieth century, described this fundamental connection between education and personal experience as "organic."5 Dewey noted that the knowledge and skill a student gains in one situation "becomes an instrument of understanding and dealing effectively with the situations" that follow.6

Professor Fowler and I quickly learned while teaching legal writing at our alma mater, Louisiana State University, that students became engaged when the problems were personally relevant-i.e., connected to their world and frames of reference. For example, an objective memo based on the legal issue of forgiveness of student loans in bankruptcy led to a much more animated discussion than a similar memo based on breach of a construction contract. But it was when we both began teaching at Southern University Law Center (SULC), a historically black university with one of the most diverse student bodies in the United States, that we learned the importance of a culturally relevant curriculum.7

Professor Fowler and I have fairly monocultural backgrounds-we are fifty-something white women whose law school graduating class contained one black student.8 Our new classes at SULC were diverse culturally, ethnically, and socio-economically. Furthermore, Professor Fowler teaches in SULC's part-time evening program, where her non-traditional students add their own nuances.

The need to create relevant and interesting materials in this new environment sparked an interest in researching multicultural legal education.9 We discovered the issue had been addressed to some extent in legal scholarship, most notably by Charles Calleros10 and Paula Lustbader,11 but we found a lack of recent articles. We learned that most of the scholarship on cultural relevance focuses on students at the elementary and secondary school level. We believe, however, that the essentials of culturally responsive teaching-"to respect diversity; engage the motivation of all learners; create a safe, inclusive, and respectful learning environment; derive teaching practices from principles that cross disciplines and cultures; and promote justice and equity in society"-apply to all levels of education.12

This Article will introduce and explain the concept of a culturally and personally relevant curriculum, articulate its goals, describe how we applied those goals to SULC's legal writing curriculum, and suggest methods that others can use to develop writing problems that are relevant to their students.


A. Cultural Relevance

The concept of multicultural education arose in the 1960s with the Civil Rights Movement.13 Ethnic Studies programs were created for inclusion in secondary schools and universities, but these programs were predominately supplements to existing programs.14 In the early 1970s, schools began to incorporate multicultural content in their curricula.15 Then, in the late 1970s, educators realized "that the effective implementation of multicultural education resides as much in teachers' attitudes, interpersonal relations with ethnic students, and instructional examples and techniques as with carefully conceptualized and well planned multicultural curriculum designs. …

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