- - Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Six eleventh graders bang their fists on the desks in unison setting up the background beat for what’s to come. “Nisa on the beatit’s Molly from the streets.” The first two chant. “Molly” starts rapping—“I was just takin’ my prescription. I don’t see why everybody having a conniption. Chill Lewis, stop tripping. I tried to explain. It didn’t work. I fought and they took me to me to Court. They haven’t decided yet but I hope it’s in my favor. I apologize for my allegedly suspicious behavior but I have my rights intact. In fact, that’s a violation of the direct Fourth Amendmentthis discussion should have been ended.” Who’s Molly? Molly is possibly the name of the petitioner in the 2015 Marshall-Brennan Constitutional Literacy Project moot court problem, or the name of a street drug that’s led to a number of recent overdoses in Capital City, Old Columbia, our fictional moot court jurisdiction. Either way—the students are engaging with the text of the Fourth Amendment—and that is what matters most to us.

At the Marshall-Brennan Constitutional Literacy Project (“Project”) we inspire high school students to care about important constitutional issues and we connect the issues that students care about to the Constitution. The Project was started in 1999 by Professor Jamie Raskin to address the well-documented constitutional illiteracy and civic disengagement of America’s high school students by mobilizing the idealism and energy of law students. We are a part of a powerful movement that seeks to reframe the issues present in the daily lives of youth as constitutional issues that must not be ignored if we want to have an active, questioning, democratic citizenry.

The Project began with 25 upper-level law students, designated Marshall-Brennan Fellows (“Fellows”) in honor of the late United States Supreme Court Justices Thurgood Marshall and William J. Brennan, Jr., and, with the support of their widows, Mrs. Cecilia Marshall and the late Mrs. Mary Brennan. During the 2014-2015 academic year 36 students taught 15 classes in 10 different public high schools in Washington, D.C. and Prince George’s County, MD. Across the country, hundreds of other Fellows, representing the 18 other law schools that have formed Marshall-Brennan chapters, joined us in this work.

The key to success in the Project lies in the relationships formed between the high school students and the law students as they grapple with the question of how to teach their students what the law says, when the law’s meaning may feel very different to some of their students based on their life experiences outside the classroom. The close-knit relationships formed between the law students and high school students as they face these questions together are reciprocal in nature, providing a deep understanding about our society for both high school students and law students—an understanding that will shape their perspectives as active citizens and advocates for justice.

On day one we tell the Fellows to have fun with the law. We give them permission to leave the box of law school thinking and get creative in designing their lesson plans. It’s not only us—the Project is part of a law-related civic education movement whereby members of the legal community are investing time working with high school students across the country to ensure that this generation of students grows to become an action-oriented generation that has the civic knowledge necessary to make a real difference in our society.

Through educating youth about their rights, and drawing upon the spirit of activism and inspiration of justice and the rule of law, law-related civic education programs are giving students the tools they need to answer the very questions the recent events around the country are raising. As civic educators, our Marshall-Brennan Fellows are planting the seeds of change by taking advantage of these poignant moments in time and helping their high school students connect the dots between issues they care about and the Constitution.

• Melinda Cooperman is adjunct professor law and Associate Director of the Marshall-Brennan Constitutional Literacy Project at American University Washington College of Law. For more information about the Marshall- Brennan Constitutional Literacy Project we welcome you to contact Melinda Cooperman at melindac@wcl.american.edu.

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