‘Street Law’ – Melbourne Law Students teaching human rights at High Schools

By John Alizzi in conversation with Monique Hardinge and Simone King | 26 Nov 12
Right Now’s John Alizzi spoke with Monique Hardinge and Simone King, students at Melbourne Law School who have recently taken part in the credit bearing ‘Street Law’ initiative.

Right Now: It would be great if you could start by explaining a little bit about ‘Street Law’.

[Monique Hardinge]: Street Law is a subject that involves students from Melbourne Law School learning about specific legal issues and then delivering that content as lessons to Year 9 classes in schools in the Melbourne area. Participants taught three lessons each; the first on human rights, the second on discrimination and the third on sexting. We also had teaching instructions from the Melbourne Graduate School of Education, which provided some background on effective teaching strategies.

[Simone King]: We were also provided with the opportunity to make an initial observation visit to build rapport and engage with our class. We also completed a range of assessments related to the experience. The assessments included creating lesson plans, delivering lessons, developing materials that can be used in future Street Law programs, and writing a reflective essay.

Why did you decide to take the course?

[SK]: I have a strong interest in public interest law and social justice; that is the area of law I want to work in. I also think community legal education is really important and that the Street Law target audience – 14-15 year old high school students – is a particularly important age group to reach. So, I thought it would be a really good experience, which it was.

[MH]: I thought the course sounded really interesting. In particular I think that it involved a really nice practical application of the law that we’ve learnt. It was a bit of a challenge – I know for myself and for a lot of the other students – to see if we could condense things into simple, easy-to-understand ideas for people without a law background. And I’ve always had an interest in public interest law, and have done some work with youth legal bodies, so this seemed to fit well with that.

‘If you do give people the right tools, hopefully that will empower them’

Did you face any other difficulties?

[MH]: Making the content relevant. Given the age of the students, there were some times when the students were really involved, but perhaps others at which they felt the content of the lessons was less relevant to them.  Human rights and discrimination might not always be an exciting thing to discuss in class, but can be really helpful for students in the future. So, I think getting students engaged was a bit of a challenge.

[SK]: Definitely. My first observation visit with my class was pretty colourful. The students were pretty energetic and rowdy and I wondered whether I’d be able to engage them in my classes. However, my students were, for the most part, pretty well-behaved once I’d made a few observation visits and established rapport with them. Their interest level definitely varied over the three classes though. They were extremely interested in the discrimination in the workplace class. They were all really excited to get jobs, so I got the sense that they considered the class would be useful and relevant to them. They seemed to want to absorb it all and to develop the skills to be able to identify unlawful discrimination in the workplace.

As for the human rights class, in some activities they were really engaged – for example, in a mock human rights court activity I facilitated, in which some of them got to play parts – but at times they didn’t seem to see the relevance of human rights to their lives. Trying to explain how human rights are enforced in 10 minutes, and to drop all the legalese and try to get to the crux of it and to explain it in simple terms is a difficult thing, but is such an important skill to develop. As for the sexting class, I think they found it saucy and interesting!

What was the reaction of school teachers to the program?

[MH]: I think teachers were generally positive about the classes. The feedback seemed to be that they were really relevant to students and were well-received. And I think that teachers appreciated a lot how the Melbourne Uni Street Law students were able to get kids outside some of their comfort zones and get them to think about how they interact with peers from different backgrounds, for example.

[SK]: I worked very closely with one teacher and she was just fantastic – really supportive. That was really conducive to creating rapport with the kids; I could be funny and joke around with them because she created such a warm class environment.

‘Most courses involve self-oriented work, whereas this is a really good way to use those skills for the benefit of others’

Do you think there is scope to expand the course, or the teaching of these kinds of topics in school?

[SK]: I do. I feel like it would have been great to have more lessons, so that we could have developed a single topic over several lessons. I think this would be really effective as it would allow future Street Law students the time to incorporate more student-based learning activities.

[MH]: I think so, if you frame the teaching in the right way you will definitely get the students engaged, and I think it fits in well with their other learning outcomes, like democratic participation. It is beneficial for students of all backgrounds, and should be something they all have access to, but lower socio-economic status schools are obviously a group for whom rights are particularly empowering. There were a lot of students who weren’t born in Australia, and who, perhaps, are making a bit of a transition and are in the process of really getting an understanding of what rights look like in an Australian context. There was a lot of misunderstanding. There were a lot of people thinking we had a US-style Bill of Rights, so I think it definitely was a learning curve for some of them to really understand how Australia approaches the rights question.

Has being involved in the ‘Street Law’ course changed your perspective in any way or is there a particular realisation you’ve taken out of the experience?

[SK]: It has definitely highlighted the importance of community legal education. Gaining a first-hand experience of educating young people who in some instances have no idea about something that is actually really important to their lives has given me an important insight into how empowering legal knowledge and skills can be.

[MH]: Students that I taught in my class were often happiest for me to just give them the answer, but it was good, towards the end of my sessions, when students started answering their own questions – you could see them applying the information to solve the problems they were asked to consider. I think that’s probably the thing that I took away – that if you do give people the right tools, hopefully that will empower them.

Would you recommend the experience to other law students? How do you view the benefits of the program law students?

[MH]: I definitely would recommend it. I think it is very practical and that is a great tool. I think no matter what work you go into, even if it is a highly commercial field, you will be explaining complex legal concepts to a non-legal audience. But, in particular, you see a very tangible outcome. You know the students are taking it in and you see them make a connection between an experience they’ve had and rights or discrimination and I think that’s a good feeling – to know that you’re really making a difference, you’re actually contributing. And it is also a nice change from considering every detail of the law, as we do in a lot of subjects, to considering the really useful information that is going to empower a young person in the future. It is a different style of thinking.

[SK]: I would definitely recommend it. Most law courses involve self-oriented work, whereas this is a really good way to use our legal skills for the benefit of others and to get out and meet with real people and to engage with our community. It is also such a creative course, which I think is a really good thing for law student’s minds; after two or three years of very analytical training it has been refreshing to think more laterally and creatively.

For further information on the Street Law program, contact program coordinator Lucy Quinn at lquinn@unimelb.edu.au or on (03) 9035 3394.