Most teachers of American History, Civics, or Government have to teach about Supreme Court cases. If your state is like mine (North Carolina) you have to prepare your students for roughly 100 Supreme Court cases for the End of Grade Test. Even if your state is not as court case-centric as mine, there is still a looming problem most teachers face: How do you teach the Supreme Court cases to students? Beyond group vs. individual work or pair and share implementation (any of which work well), I’ve found that there is no one “best” way to teach them. Instead, I’ve adopted a series of approaches to help students see the court cases as a) relevant to them, b) illustrate that these case decisions affect the lives of real people like them, their friends, and neighbors, and c) that these decisions are made by people (justices) based on majority vote, and not everyone agrees.
The first thing I do is “take it slow.” Essentially, I give my students a list of all the court cases we are going to cover about a month ahead of time. And I assign the students to research four court cases every class period. They should write down how the vote went (5-4, etc); what decision was reached; and the general facts of the case. (The Institute’s landmark cases page and www.oyez.org are a good resources.) Then each class, usually during the warm up activity, I go over the legal briefs of the case that they should have written down.
The second thing I do is get them to “know the people” the court case is about. So many people studying court cases seem to overlook that all the defendants and plaintiffs are people with real problems. What I do is tell the students the stories about these people: what their problem was; how they believe they were wronged; what they did about it; and how the case ended up at the Supreme Court. This approach really personalizes the cases for the students because they begin to take an impersonal phrase like “Tinker vs. Des Moines” and link it to students protesting a war. It is amazing how much retention improves when students link names and titles to personal stories. I usually relate these stories after we’ve gone over the 4 Supreme Court cases that day. And I make sure the students write these stories down. I also have the visual learners draw pictures next to each description.
The third technique I employ is “dissenting opinions.” To truly understand Supreme Court decisions, we must focus on not only what the courts decided, but what they argued about. I do this in several ways depending on the ability level of the class: 1) I have a ready list of dissenting opinions for each court case that I allow the students access to; 2) I have them research the dissenting opinions as a way to “refresh” their memory on the court cases they’ve previously researched; 3) I break the students into groups of majority and dissenting and have them role play the different sides of the argument, indicating at the end the winner (majority opinion).
And, beyond these techniques, for each court case I link the constitutional question that they are arguing about (i.e. eminent domain, a claimed right to privacy, etc) Now, I understand that some teachers might feel reticent focusing on the dissenting opinions. They may feel like time constraints, ability level of students, or any of a number of reasons justify skipping dissenting opinions. That is your call; teachers are masters of their classroom and know what is best for their students. I would, however, urge you to try teaching about dissenting opinions, even if you boil it down to one or two sentences. My experience has been that when you cover dissenting opinions, a light bulb goes off in student’s heads and they realize that the decisions of our highest court are not pulled out of the air, but have a basis in constitutional interpretation. The cases are decided by real people with different ideas arguing about what they believe is the right interpretation of the law. And when students see that, they seem to understand that the Supreme Court cases are important to learn because, just like our Congress, and our elections, the group with the most votes wins.