The Juvenile Justice Module: Engaging seniors from day one

  • High School
Jennifer Hargrave

The last first day of school for seniors is upon them and when the inevitable day their senioritis arrives, I will be ready.  The longer it stays away though, the better. I anticipate this class's senioritis arriving early, as I have had some of them since they were freshmen. After teaching Bridge to College English the last few years, I knew exactly which unit to start the year with to keep these seniors coming back for more. We began day one with the words the Juvenile Justice on the whiteboard and discussing law terms.  Discussing juvenile crime and punishment on the first day of school had each of them dusting out the last brain cobwebs of summer vacation by questioning and thinking from the start. While asking seniors to define involuntary manslaughter on their first day of school is certainly shocking, the module leads to students understanding the continuing development of the teenage brain. The material over the course of the module evolves from a discussion regarding crime to being cognizant of a teenager's use of the decision-making process.

At the end of the year, students always cite this module as being one of their favorites, not only because of the topic, but also because of the structure of the module. Each Bridge to College module's goal is to lead students toward independence and they feel that independence in the end.

Bridge to College modules have a pattern of activities, referred to as a template, that provide consistency and build skills throughout the year.  The units begin with pre-reading activities ranging from vocabulary building to previewing techniques.  Then there are during reading, post-reading, thinking about reading, and writing activities.  The Juvenile Justice module follows the same pattern, helping to make seniors self-reliant readers and writers while students synthesize information on a relevant topic.

Juvenile Justice opens with a series of vocabulary activities that increase anticipation of the topic while students learn law terms they may hear frequently in the media. Students brainstorm synonyms for juvenile, the differences between adults and teens, and what types of crimes are typically categorized as being a juvenile crime (graffiti, etc.) Before students read articles they also learn the difference in severity of major crimes and the punishment that follows. Previewing the text through reviewing titles and making predictions is also among the strategies.

Once vocabulary and concepts are established, the unit has up to five readings covering various perspectives on the punishment of juveniles as adults.  These articles range from understanding the teenage brain to examples of juvenile court cases.  While reading students monitor comprehension through questioning, using text structure, reviewing predictions, and making connections to the various readings.

After students complete each article they analyze both structure and language usage.  These skills are later revisited during the writing process to enhance their own ability to produce communication.  One activity that is used throughout many units is the construction of a descriptive outline in which students identify the thesis and the different sections of the argument.  This provides a basis for students to discuss which parts of the argument are effective and which parts need additional support.

The process of pre-, during- and post-reading strategies are repeated for each article with article specific activities and finishes with a reflection on their reading process.  For reference, two included articles are Paul Thompson's "Startling Finds on Teenage Brains" in the Sacramento Bee and Gail Garinger's "Juveniles Don't Deserve Life Sentences" in the New York Times.  I supplement the required readings with current court cases.  Last year we added cases regarding teens who threw rocks off overpasses with devastating consequences.

Once the articles are complete, students synthesize the information through activities that have them connect reading to writing.  They review the different sides of the argument and navigate voices that go with each. Students then take a stance on the main overarching question regarding treating teens as adults in the justice system.  Before they start writing, they process why they have come to their conclusions and what information supports that stance.

For this particular module, students begin with an on-demand writing prompt that further establishes their position.  Over a series of multiple drafts and a peer editing process, students refine the the argument and develop their own voice as a writer. The module takes four to five weeks to complete because of the extensive writing process.

High school seniors can present a special challenge.  In Bridge to College, predominantly composed of students looking toward community college or entering jobs directly after high school, I need to make a final push to hone skills they need to be successful, independent readers and writers.  The only way to do that is to keep them engaged all year.  The Bridge to College modules are one way to do accomplish that.

In my next blog, I will continue highlighting units from Bridge to College.

  • English Language Arts
  • Literacy
  • Reading
  • Student Engagement
  • Teacher Leadership
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