Sometimes it’s surprising what will get them talking

My aim as an educator is to bring about “catch fire” experiences in the classroom, so to that end I try to make my material engaging primarily to myself and then to the students. Yes, you read that right: teacher engagement is the sine qua non of successful learning. (One of the worst courses I ever took was taught by a professor who regularly used to pull lecture notes from a filing cabinet that was decades old and read those notes as a lecture during what was supposed to be a discussion-based seminar.) (Of course—and pardon me as my parenthetical asides multiply—we’ve all suffered at the other extreme where the teacher is so obviously fired up about a subject that leaves the entirety of the class cold. Teacher engagement is a necessary but insufficient condition for successful learning.)

I’m disentangling myself from parentheses to bring us back to the point I really want to make, which is that sometimes I take risks with material that I consider vital to the discussion even if I fear that students will have to slog through it with a little less enthusiasm. What I thought would be the necessary evil in my Transitions to Adulthood program was the opening unit on legal definitions of adulthood. As a baseline for further discussions it was important that everyone knew what the age of majority was, and further, could explain what the phrase meant. Although most of the YC participants were aware that the age of majority was eighteen, the idea of being in “majority control over one’s decisions and actions” was new to everyone, even though they were familiar with the concept of accountability. We talked about difference between the age of license and the age of majority, and then I had them fill out a worksheet where they would first guess at the legal minimum age at which you could engage in a certain activity (e.g., voting, owning a gun, getting married, getting a credit card), and then, in a second column, fill in the ages they wished or believe dpeople should be able to do those same activities. Honestly, I wasn’t certain that the participants would enjoy this unit, but we ended up having such a long, intense discussion that I cut out the freewrite to devote more time to our talk.

I think adults like to assume that young people are eager to bring legal limits lower (it’s always the drinking age that first comes to mind), but this group really surprised me because so many of them were in favor of raising the age of majority to 21 or higher for many of the activities listed. We spent a lot of time talking about the responsibility of sitting on a jury, and boy oh boy, this was a group that did not cotton to the idea of deciding on the fate of another. What’s interesting is that many of them were a lot more comfortable with the right to vote, since the by and large considered themselves well-educated and well-informed (although I did have to steer many of them away from the idea of setting a literacy requirement for voters).

I really like this activity for several reasons, the first of which is that it gives you really good insight into the minds of young people and their opinions on many fascinating topics. It also provides us a great opportunity to talk about the historical genesis of certain laws (e.g., how the voting age was lowered as a result of the Vietnam War draft; how M.A.D.D. was largely responsible for raising the drinking age to 21). I think it’s important to show that the law has not “always been,” and that there are reasons, whether you agree with them or not, for their enactment. You can also get young people to exercise their critical thinking skills by asking them to consider some of the apparent contradictions within the law. Many of them, for example, did not think it was fair to allow people as young as 17 to serve in the military, but to prohibit anyone under 21 to own a gun in NYC. (And, as with sitting on a jury, a lot of those same kids believed that the age to join the military should be raised, since “people don’t really know what they’re getting into when they enlist.”) They also thought it was nonsensical that education would be compulsory only until a certain age (17), rather than the completion of high school.

If you haven’t had this kind of discussion with the teenagers in your life, I highly recommend it. Everyone will learn so much, not only about the law, but about one another.

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