The Florida Bar

Florida Bar Journal

Justice Lewis Inspires Inquiring Young Minds to Want to Know Civics

Misc

Mayanne Downs Within five minutes of his first lesson as a Justice Teaching volunteer, Vero Beach lawyer Jason Odom threw away prepared remarks, ditched his microphone, got eye level with students at the Alternative Center for Education, and spent a rewarding hour talking about their rights and responsibilities as they navigate from childhood into adulthood.

Ft. Lauderdale attorney Anne Hinds confessed she had a pit in her stomach when she first arrived at Palm Beach Central High School. Nervousness flew away as students enthusiastically discussed the Fourth Amendment in a real case involving the constitutionality of a strip search of a student by school personnel.

Megan Wall, of St. Johns County Legal Aid, was down on the floor laughing with students at Mill Creek Elementary School, teaching the “Invaders” activity, where space aliens come to planet Earth and want to take away some of their constitutional rights.

The granddaddy of Justice Teaching is Florida Supreme Court Justice Fred Lewis, who has taught civics in schools across the state for a dozen years.

the end of an hour that made learning about the Bill of Rights fun at a fifth-grade class at Tallahassee’s Gilchrist Elementary School, Justice Lewis asked the children: “Ever have a really good friend and you never told them that you loved them, and they moved away or something happened to them and you never got a chance to say, ‘I love you?’

“That’s what happens with these constitutional rights. If you don’t take the time to embrace them, to love them, to protect them, to care about them, they may be gone.”

Saying he possesses “the passion of a Baptist minister and the aggression of an NFL linebacker when it comes to our kids and education,” in 2006, then Chief Justice Lewis had a dream to bring Justice Teaching into every public school in Florida.

That dream has almost come true. Today, 3,900 lawyers and judges volunteer for Justice Teaching, delivering interactive civics lessons that reach 97 percent of Florida’s public schools, as well as 224 private schools. (More volunteers are needed, especially in rural counties. For more information, go to justiceteaching.org.)

“I did it because I believed in Florida lawyers and Florida judges to do the right thing,” Justice Lewis said recently. “I also believe there is a tremendous need, because. . . I saw I could not reach every student myself, and we need everyone in this army.

“I see the beauty of tomorrow in our students of today, and I see young bright, talented minds willing to address issues of this democracy, if we will provide them just basic, truthful information.”

Justice Lewis spent last year’s summer court recess helping public school teachers prepare for new civics education requirements in the “Justice Sandra Day O’Connor Civic Education Act” passed by the 2010 lsegislature and championed by Rep. Charles McBurney, R-Jacksonville, and Sen. Nancy Detert, R-Venice. They were driven by the fact that 71 percent of students could not pass a basic civics test. It was the eventual fulfillment of a goal by 2006 Florida Bar President Alan Bookman, troubled that less than 10 percent of Florida’s 67 counties required teaching civics in middle school.

Beginning this fall, the reading portion of the language arts curriculum will include civics education content for all grade levels. Next year, students entering sixth grade will be required to successfully complete a one-semester civics education course.

Praising that Florida legislation, ABA President Steve Zack, a Miami lawyer, is taking civics education nationwide. He’s initiated an ABA Commission on Civics Education in the Nation’s Schools to draw on the combined talents of attorneys, judges, educators, and organizational leaders. Their role will be to promote civics education as a national educational priority, highlight and enhance existing civics education efforts, and create opportunities for innovative civics education programs throughout the country.

“We’re going to go into every high school in America and teach civics,” Zack explained to the ABA House of Delegates.

“We’re going to bring civics back to the workplace, to the dining room table, to the schools. We’ll prepare a national civics test so you can talk about these issues with your children. We will make it central to our daily life so that our way of life continues to be one of democracy.”

If citizens don’t understand what makes democracy work, they are likely not to understand the essential components of an independent judiciary. I applaud all of the Justice Teaching volunteers and public and private school teachers who are reaching children eager to learn that without a strong rule of law, our democracy will cease to exist.