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Friday, December 31, 2010

Reaching for the Tingle....

Dear Friends:

I have been thinking a lot lately about what really exists at the core of my approach to teaching advocacy. Why do I do the things that I do? I must confess that the approaches that I love the most are the ones that stray far afield from accepted practices, but I console myself with the belief that they are grounded in other fields from which all advocacy professors might want to learn. I am always questing for something more. Like all of us I can nail the NITA critique in my sleep, but I have done that more than once and felt that I let the person I was trying to teach down – I had not gone far enough into the darkness with them to help them see the light. I have come to believe as a core value that if the student is brave enough to try then I should be brave enough to teach them, using whatever method is necessary in that moment to make a difference for the student.

When I first started teaching it was with other attorneys that worked for me. I was always focused on the end result – the trial. The personal dynamics between the client, the witnesses, the advocate and the judge were always fascinating and we worked hard to find the message that would prevail for that specific set of circumstances. From time to time we would do the obligatory NITA style training, but almost as an afterthought.

Over time I turned to fundamentals as a way to create a baseline level of competency, and I still love advocacy fundamentals as the starting point for everything I teach. I even titled my trial advocacy text “Fundamental Trial Advocacy,” and I firmly believe that some of our skills should be automatic. A good critique on something as simple as word choice, body position, filler words, pauses, or any of the other “bread and butter” teaching points is always time well spent – but it rarely makes me tingle. I reach for the tingle whenever I can – do you?

What do I mean by reaching for the tingle? The tingle is when the student has a breakthrough. That breakthrough can be skill performance specific, a deeper level of personal understanding, or a connection with the other participants. These teaching moments come when you see that the student has an issue, but you know that the fix for that problem is going to require you to trust the student, possibly embarrass yourself, and risk failing in front of a group of students to whom you have been identified as an expert in the field. Do you reach? Do you grasp for that moment? Or do you turn away into the safety of something else?

I think the students know when we go out on that limb with them. I believe at an internal level they appreciate it when we expose ourselves to failure, to ridicule, to judgment – just as they feel exposed in that moment. That is a gift that the teacher has the power to give to the student - and it gives them power in a place where they feel powerless. I like to think of it as a student centered approach, and it reflects some accepted paradigms of adult experiential learning. They become responsible for their own learning. Let me share how I go about it.

I usually start by asking the student how that felt, not how they think they did. I like to begin with reflection by the student because it helps me see where they are in their growth. Different students will focus on different things. How they focus, what they focus on, and the way they choose to share it all present opportunities to help me identify the right teaching moment. I build outward from the things that they share with me because that often identifies the “thing” that needs to be addressed. I combine this with the observations that I have made about that student over the course of the program. There are many different opportunities to get to know these students, each of them are moments that provide me with information that becomes crucial when it is time to reach them.

I want to get them into the moment of the performance so that together we can identify what canbe encouraged to grow, what should perhaps be pruned back to a reasonable level, or sometimes completely weeded out. I rarely ask the student how they think that went because they are usually hypercritical or simply blow the answer off. I want to know what they were feeling when they did it, physically, emotionally, mentally.

After they tell me I ask them if they will give me permission to help. Once they give it, and they always do, I ask them again how they are feeling – starting with their current physical state. This is the point where they begin to become responsible for what they are about to discover. Sometimes I get push back. When that happens I have them take a deep breath, close their eyes and picture what just happened. I then ask them to share the physical sensations they were experiencing while they performed. I focus them on action verbs, clear descriptions – the same word choice issues that we teach on direct examination. I then build my next question off their response. They are often very quick to identify what is bothering them, and it opens to the door to my advice. We begin to work together to solve their problem in a way that they accept and can implement. This creates a short back and forth that is really a shared conversation. It is also a sharing of the spirit, an acceptance of our shortcomings and recognition of the trust that we are placing in one another as teacher and student.

These become transformational moments in the life of the student – if they are ready for the transformation. Remember those moments in the courtroom when everything slows down, the words flow and you hold the jury, or the witness in the palm of your hand? Remember that feeling that you had when everyone in the room knew at a primal level that something very important had just happened in court? You can have that same feeling when teaching – all you have to do is reach for the tingle.



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