Learning to Teach, and Teaching to Learn: A Conversation with Professor Richard Roe of Georgetown Law’s Street Law

June 25, 2018

Professor Rick Roe (right), who is retiring after more than 30 years directing Georgetown Law's Street Law Program, poses with Acting Director Charisma Howell and Street Law Student Alum Patrick Campbell (C'92)

Professor Rick Roe, the director of Georgetown Law’s Street Law clinic, is retiring after more than 40 years at the Law Center — 35 of those years as a member of the full-time faculty. Roe will be honored at a dinner celebration on June 28.

Street Law — a program in which law students teach the law in high schools and in prisons — was founded at Georgetown Law in 1972 by director Jason Newman (L’65), who also created Georgetown Law’s Harrison Institute. The late Edward O’Brien (L’73), one of the first four Georgetown law students to teach Street Law, stayed with the program, and with Newman and others founded the national Street Law program. It was O’Brien who asked Roe to work with him in Georgetown Law’s Street Law Corrections Program.

We sat down with Roe to get his thoughts on Street Law, how he got his start as a teacher and what makes his teaching philosophy so powerful.


What made you decide that the law was for you?

Well, I always wanted to be a lawyer. From my earliest memory of thinking about a career, I was always drawn to the idea of establishing justice.


As an undergraduate at Yale, majoring in Latin American Studies, you studied abroad in Colombia, which started you on the road to teaching, is that right?

Yes, I did my junior year abroad in Bogota. In the second semester, I was asked to teach a class of fourth graders every morning for three hours. And that was a true learning experience, because I had to invent my own curriculum and teaching style. I also taught at a language school at night. But previously, in my first summer at Yale, I tutored in the housing projects behind the campus. That really started me on the lifelong experience of working with underdeveloped learners.


When you went to law school at the University of Maine, did you envision yourself marrying the law with education?

I didn’t have a clear vision of what I wanted to do. I was a prosecutor the summer between my second and third years and I was actually good at it. But I didn’t want to just try cases. I wanted to affect the system of justice more broadly.

I happened upon an ad in The New York Times for somebody to help law students teach law in high schools. It turned out to be at Georgetown. When I came for the interview, they had already filled the two supervisory positions available. But they liked me and asked if I would be the grants writer for the national Street Law program.

So I accepted, took the bar exam, jumped in the U-Haul, and drove down from Maine to Georgetown in August 1977.


What was your work like back then?

For the first three years, I wrote grants, helped develop curriculum and design programs, initiated collaborations with other organizations, and worked with the school districts and law schools around the country that were becoming interested in Street Law. Then I was asked to help teach and supervise in the Street Law Corrections Clinic as an adjunct. Working with the law students to teach in the prisons was wonderful. When three years later the supervisory position in the Street Law Clinic [(where law students teach in high schools)] became available, I was offered that, also.


Let’s talk about the program’s teaching philosophy and your role in developing that.

When I started, Street Law was already both practical and innovative in its teaching approach. Georgetown Street Law has been a leader in interactive, learner-centered teaching. For example, we’ve pioneered the use of mock trials as learning activities. The second semester of the Street Law high schools program is devoted almost entirely to a mock trial competition among all our schools based on realistic, compelling and complex mock trial problems we write. Mini mock hearings, from informal to more formal, are used in all topic areas.

Over the years, I’ve involved our wonderful teaching fellows as partners in the teaching, supervision and administration of Street Law as much as possible, and have learned as much or more from them as they have from me. I’ve tried to apply the same principles of teaching and learning with our law students in our orientation, seminars and supervision as we’ve asked them to use in their own classrooms. And I’ve tried to apply a developmental, positive approach in supervising law students and fellows.


How would you define interactive teaching?

The Law Society of Ireland, for which we’ve done Street Law trainings for several years for their lawyers in training, came up with a slogan that captures the idea: “Talk less, teach more.”

Interactive teaching gets the learners to do the talking and thinking by participating in activity-based lessons in which they engage with the lesson materials and each other. It shifts the focus of the classroom from what the teacher says to what the learners say and do. Activities include roleplays, hypothetical situations, simulated investigations, case studies and mock trials. Over the course of the semester, the cognitive and expressive dimensions of these lessons become more complex and rigorous as learners move from novice level to mastery.

There’s a trajectory that starts by getting students to just give their opinions about legal topics, staying away from right or wrong answers. We want to get them comfortable, safe and familiar with talking, so the beginning part of the course focuses less on conveying legal information and more on getting them to talk about legal ideas. The law is perfect for interactive teaching because it’s very much in the vein of, “on the one hand this, on the other hand that.”

We try to create discourse communities in the classroom. In this way, we’re not only teaching but also letting learning happen. Yet that can be done in a very structured way. It’s not as if a teacher goes into class and says, “What do you want to learn today?” The teacher has a clear idea of major themes that she wants to develop and exciting problems or situations or examples that will really engage the learners.

And the teacher tries to make it flexible so that the students themselves can work out the problems and the issues. You want to make it engaging for them. You want to connect with the learner’s life and world and do that in a way that’s not lecture.


You send some law students into high schools and others into prisons. What is the prison program like?

When I started supervising in the Corrections Clinic, I thought that the residents, as they prefer to be called, would want really practical information.

It turned out that they actually loved the learner-centered, interactive approach and broader discussions of law and legal principles as much as or more than the high school students did because these methods challenged them to think, and they loved the experience of being respected and treated as thoughtful people. Even though they had, for the most part, lower levels of literacy and fewer positive experiences in school, they took their education seriously.

For example, sometimes, we would bring high school students to a prison and teach classes [together]. Once, at the end of the class, the high school kids asked the obligatory questions, “What are you in for?” “What is life in prison like?” After the residents told them, they said the obligatory things: “Don’t be like us,” “do the right thing,” “stay in school.” And of course the high school kids rolled their eyes.

But then, as the kids were leaving, the residents turned back to their Georgetown law student teachers and said, “Oh, you didn’t collect the homework.” And the [high school] kids stopped in their tracks! They were surprised to realize that the residents were serious about learning and really meant what they had said.

I’ll never forget another experience in the prisons. Our law students were often asked to write letters for the residents when they were eligible for parole or so they could have a letter for job applications after their release. We had a model letter that in the first paragraph described the Street Law program. In the second paragraph, the law student would write complimentary observations like, “Mr. or Ms. Jones comes to class regularly, or participates in our discussions, is a good listener and has an avid interest in the material,” and then add specific personal observations. A typical letter would be less than one page. I was observing a class when a resident received his letter. He left the room and about five minutes later came back with tear streaks on his face. He said to the law student, “That’s the nicest thing anybody ever said about me.” For me, that crystalized how such a simple thing like positive, ordinary feedback could impact a person.


That’s a powerful moment.

Yes, and that gets us to the question of what is Street Law about? What do we really try to do at the core? I think it’s two things. We teach people about the law that affects their lives, and at the same time we also use their inherent interest in the law to develop critical thinking, expressive skills and minds of their own. And the chief way to do that, I have found, is by valuing the learner.

There are a lot of principles about what makes good teaching that we include in our Street Law trainings at Georgetown and in presentations all over the world, and they’re very compelling. But I think the core principle is simply valuing the learners, treating them with respect, listening to what they have to say and helping them build on it instead of teaching by telling. This involves creating opportunities for the students to develop, to do the talking and thinking in the classroom.


What do you hear from Georgetown alumni who participated in the program?

One of the things alums say most often is that teaching in correctional settings and in high school is really hard work, and also highly rewarding both personally and professionally! In Street Law we’re asking them to teach in this interactive way and it’s very demanding work to master these skills. We’re not trying to get our law students to be perfect teachers. We’re trying to help them develop into good teachers and through that into good lawyers, and that takes time.

So rather than being prescriptive and focusing on teaching “correctly,” correcting their mistakes, we employ a supervisory style with our law students that catches them doing things right. We will spend 60 to 75 percent of our supervisory time talking about what they did well, what works in the classroom, what works in their teaching, and what their aspirations are. With the remaining time, we’ll ask them how they want to improve. Because we don’t expect them — even after a 40-hour training session — to walk into a classroom and teach with mastery.

Alums say teaching is one of the best ways to learn a subject, so they learn the law really well when they have to teach it. But in addition, what they really learn is to prepare for the unexpected, to be versatile, to learn how other people think in a setting with real diversity. In every Street Law class, there’s a wide range of learners with a wide range of viewpoints and experiences that our law students are being exposed to, especially when they’re teaching in a way that brings out what the learners are thinking. It really gives our law students a chance to see and to experience diversity. Once they do this for a while, they get comfortable and confident in handling all kinds of surprising and interesting things.


You’re retiring. What are some of your takeaways after all these years?

I have become committed to experiential, interactive, learner-centered teaching and learning not only in Street Law but also across the curriculum and at all levels of learning. This approach allows us to teach about justice with justice. And what is teaching with justice? It is due process, equal protection and fairness in action. It is treating every single learner as a valued human personality and as an integral person — whatever their academic or other abilities and experiences happen to be — so that the learner experiences being listened to in a way that is also rigorous.

This approach involves not only knowing facts and particular laws but also thinking deeply about and articulating principles and larger ideas. For this reason, I feel it’s essential for us to teach our law students in the same manner as we expect them to teach their own students. Not only does this help our law students become better teachers, but also through this teaching to become better lawyers.