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9 Law Tchr. 1 (2001-2002)

handle is hein.journals/lawteaer9 and id is 1 raw text is: t
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Institute for Law School Teaching


Fall 2001

Puzzle y our students

By Stephanie J. Willbanks
Ilove crossword puzzles. I enjoy working out the
solutions, piece by piece. I can even see an analogy to
the law in crossword puzzles. The law develops piece
by piece, case by case, statute by statute, regulation by
regulation, until it is one interrelated whole.
So, on the second day of my Wills and Trusts course, I
assign a crossword puzzle. My goal is nothing as lofty as
leading students to the realization that law in its entirety can
be viewed, and learned, like a crossword puzzle. Rather,
my goal is much more mundane. The material in the book
is vocabulary and history, what law professors typically
assign as background reading. I do not like to assign
material that I do not cover in class. It sends a signal to the
students that this material is not important. But it is. The
vocabulary of the law helps us communicate and informs us
of important underlying concepts. In Wills and Trusts, the
language also tells the history. Moreover, I believe that
active learning is more efficient. If students do, they
remember. The exercise fosters cooperation and confidence,
requiring all students to participate. This helps establish my
expectations for the rest of the semester.
The exercise is relatively simple, although it takes some
preparation on my part. I create a grid (using the table
feature in WordPerfect) and fill it in with as many of the
words from the reading as possible. Crossword puzzle fans
realize that this is not as easy as it first appears, because
many of the words are long, and creating a pattern where
they intersect without colliding is difficult. I am never able
to get all the legal words that I want into the puzzle, but I
do manage to insert a reasonable number of them. I then
finish off the puzzle with normal words that will assist
the students in solving the puzzle. I then test my creation
on family members, friends, or staff to catch the inevitable
errors. Although it creates additional work, I construct a
new puzzle each year so that my students cannot acquire the
answers from prior classes.
On the syllabus, I simply assign the text pages and tell
the students to bring a pencil to class. The first year or two,
this created a sense of unease among the students. While
this was an added benefit to the exercise, I am sure that the
student grapevine now relays to each new group that this is
not a standardized test and they can rest easy. I allow
students to work alone or in groups of two or three, but all
books and notes must be closed. This requires all students

to participate in the exercise and forces them to rely on their
colleagues for answers. I bold the clues for the words from
the course and tell students that those are the ones I want
them to complete. I allow students approximately 35 to 40
minutes to complete the grid, circulating through the room
to determine when a reasonable number have completed the
essential words. Then I debrief by going through the
class, student by student, asking for the answers. At the
end, everyone will have completed his or her puzzle and
learned the terms.
Students enjoy this exercise because it is novel. The
students who do not enjoy crossword puzzles are few and
far between. Because it is not graded, or even collected,
students are willing to take risks. This exercise works well
at the beginning of the semester, and it might work in a
review session.
The lesson I learned from this exercise is to be
adventurous and try something different. By the third year,
students are tired of the same old case analysis and Socratic
method. They will learn more if the material is presented in
different ways. The other lesson I have learned is that
students react positively to this exercise because I enjoy it.
They are willing to take the risk of something new because
of my enthusiasm. So when you try something different,
make sure it is something that you like.
Stephanie J. Willbanks teaches at Vermont Law School,
Chelsea Street, South Royalton, VT 05068; (802) 763-8303
(x2277);fax (802) 763-2663; sjwillba@vermontlaw.edu.

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