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Teaching the Supreme Court to 9-12 Graders

Now is the perfect time to engage students in a discussion about the Supreme Court

Recent Supreme Court decisions have pushed our nation's highest legal ruling authority to the forefront of discourse. Here's how to teach that entity to your older students.

The Supreme Court is the highest court in the United States and the decisions handed down by the nine justices have shaped U.S. history, for better or worse.

Supreme Court decision time is always exciting and the last few weeks have been no exception. The Court recently ruled on a variety of topics, ranging from Miranda rights, workplace harassment, voter rights and gay marriage. No matter how you feel about any of the rulings, you have to agree that this is a perfect time to engage students in lessons and discussions about civics, law, and the workings of the judicial branch.

Here are a few ideas you can use to deepen your students’ understanding of the Court, to help them learn about a few landmark cases, and to get them thinking about how these decisions affect us all.

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The Basics of the Supreme Court

Before you can delve into important Supreme Court cases, your students must first understand the history of the Court and how the Court works.

Begin by explaining to students that the Supreme Court of the United States first convened on February 2, 1790. Then, ask them to use their understanding of history to brainstorm as a group a list of the types of cases the Court might have considered at that time. After the list is complete, use your history books and the internet to research the first cases heard in front of the Supreme Court. How close were the guesses? How far off?

The New York Times has a great article, full of ideas and tips you can use to give your students a thorough understanding of just how the Court functions. Among them:

Study landmark cases

After your students have an understanding of how the Court functions, take the time to delve into a few landmark Supreme Court cases.

Begin by having students search online indexes of Supreme Court cases. The Supreme Court Database is a good place to start. This online tool allows researchers, students, and journalists to information about each case decided by the Court between the 1946 and 2011.

The Oyez database project of the Chicago Kent College of law is another great resource. The multimedia archive has all audio recordings from the Court since October 1955. The Project also offers a virtual reality tour of parts of the Supreme Court building. 

Of course, you should download and use TeachHUB’s Landmark Cases of the Supreme Court lesson plan.

The Modern Court

Have students read about recent Supreme Court decisions. They can search the Oyez database or review the New York Times site.

After they conduct their research, ask students to select a case and have them write a two-page ‘opinion’ paper. Ask them to think critically about the impact the decision has on society.

You can also ask students to weigh the Court’s decision against public opinion. Ask them to conduct a poll amongst fellow students, their families, their neighbors and their social media followers. Once they have their answers, instruct them to graph out the responses, indicating how many respondents agreed with the Court’s decision and how many disagreed. Ask them to track respondents by age group, gender, and race and have them graph that information, too.

Predicting the Future

Have students think about issues that are currently brewing and ask them to ‘predict’ what cases the Court might be asked to hear in the future. Have students justify their predictions with news articles or blog posts that show ‘people are talking’ about the issue they write about.

You can also ask students to look at existing decisions and predict whether or not they will be challenged in the future. Again, have them justify their predictions.

Now, it’s your turn: how do you engage your students in lessons on the Supreme Court? Leave your reply in the comments section, below.

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