After Rebecca Rich, the director of Kline Law’s Legal Research Center and an assistant teaching professor, realized that the COVID-19 pandemic would disrupt how she taught her fall 2020 Education Law class, she rethought the course’s single summative exam. While others might be daunted by the prospect of fundamentally changing a course’s assessments, for Rich the change was not a challenge, but an opportunity.
After speaking with her mentor Melissa Wong, Rich developed experiential learning assignments that would capitalize on the limitations imposed by the pandemic by expanding the experiential components of the course. At the top of her list was a collaborative school board negotiation, because “in the real-world, lawyers have to collaborate with school administrators, school policy makers, and school boards,” said Rich.
In her quest to create the simulation, Rich connected with Bruce Levine, associate clinical professor and director of the Education Policy program at Drexel University’s School of Education. Levine, who was looking to focus his Education Policy: Concepts, Issues, and Applications course more on local-level policy making and to make it more experiential, agreed to collaborate with Rich, describing the opportunity as “too good to pass up.”
An Exercise in Strategic Thinking and Empathy
The simulation, which took place on November 11, marked the first joint class between Kline Law and the School of Education. The 26 law, doctoral, master’s and certificate students were divided into seven groups to negotiate the modality for K-12 classes during winter 2021 in the fictitious town of Baranduin, Pennsylvania.
An exercise in strategic thinking, negotiation and empathy, the simulation entailed each of the groups taking on the interests of the population they represented. Each group was given secret information about the problems faced by their assigned population which was the potential conflict at the heart of the negotiation. These populations included everything from the school administration and the parent/teacher association (PTA) to the teachers’ union to the counsel’s office for the Baranduin School District.
Giving students the opportunity to communicate across divides and embody these diverse viewpoints was “incredibly useful for everyone involved,” said Rich, who understands that each student will likely encounter these situations in their careers.
Education law or policy experts facilitated each student group. Rich and Levine choose these facilitators from their connections throughout the country, with facilitators calling in from as far away as Texas. This innovative approach was another instance of how Rich and Levine capitalized on the remote learning collaboration. The facilitators were Cerys St. John Richter, Chief of Staff at Thomas R. Kline School of Law; Matthew Thomas, President of LM Thomas Group Consulting; Amanda Foster, Associate Professor of Law, Nova Southeastern University College of Law; Jennifer Wondracek, Director of Legal Educational Technology, University of North Texas Dallas College of Law; Gregory Monskie, Chief Legal and Operations Officer at the Red Lion Area School District in York, Pennsylvania; and Julie Shaw, Educational Consultant/Specialist at NeuroLogic by Lakeside and graduate of the School of Education’s EdD program. Rich’s brother Max Rich, MD, PhD, also served as medical consultant throughout the simulation.
Students & Facilitators on What They Learned
The negotiation generated a productive discussion that gave students a better understanding of the problems faced by each population as well as potential solutions. 3L Richard Dunne said the simulation led him to “appreciate the difficulties school boards face,” while allowing him to see the complexities present in the intersection of law and education. He said seeing these complexities through the simulation perhaps was “overwhelming” but was also “informative.” Similarly, 3L Sarah Rahman said that participating in the simulation allowed her to take policies and laws she’s learned in class “out of the abstract” and to “learn [them] in ‘praxis.’”
Part of this praxis required students to adopt viewpoints that they didn’t necessarily hold; however, this proved to be a positive component of the exercise for former elementary teacher and new student in the Education Policy certificate program, Jessica Carr. She noted that the most valuable aspect of the simulation was “the opportunity to identify with and dig into a stance that runs counter to my own opinions and values.” A commitment to assigned personas was unexpected for doctoral student Annalee Kelly, who said, “What surprised me was that at times, presenters were so convincing that I actually forgot that it was not real. I appreciated how passionate everyone was and that everyone ‘bought in’ to the simulation.”
The simulation also opened up network opportunities for participants. Amy Donnelly, a student in the Education Policy certificate program, described the simulations as “eye opening” and said, “I was so grateful to have the opportunity to work with peers and to have conversations with aspiring attorneys interested in education and appreciated building a network of people in different areas of expertise within education.”
Wondracek, who joined the simulation from Texas and served as the facilitator for the Baranduin School Technology Administrators, praised the students at the end of the simulation: “I was very impressed with your negotiation skills with your civility and with all of the support that I saw come in through the chat.”
With positive reviews from students and facilitators alike, the collaboration will likely be repeated. While Rich notes that there are “some tweaks” she’d make, she also stated that “I really feel like the mix of viewpoints let the students see the complexity of the situation.” For Levine, the experience “turned out to be enjoyable and enlightening for all involved.” He also noted that the simulation was “a great illustration of how our two schools can find mutually beneficial ways to work together. I not only look forward to repeating the simulation with Becka but also identifying additional interesting collaborations.”