Bringing Lone Star Law to Houston’s Seventh Grade Students

by David A. Furlow

During three months from February 16 to May 17, 2016, the Houston Bar Association became Texas’s first bar association to pilot the Texas Supreme Court Historical Society’s “Teach Texas” program to seventh grade students. Throughout the greater Houston area, volunteer attorneys and judges entered 576 classrooms to teach 9,534 seventh grade students in 28 schools how the Rule of Law came to the Lone Star State. Most volunteers shared stories about their education, practices, and experiences. Almost all answered questions like, “How many years did you go to law school?” and “How much money do lawyers make?” and “Do you have to defend someone you think is guilty?”

Fifth Circuit Judge Jennifer Elrod shared stories of Texas legal history and educational printouts 
(on the wall behind her) with Taming Texas project seventh grade students

Some lawyers presented PowerPoint programs that chronicled the history of Texas law, lawyers, and courts. Others posted flash cards and other teaching tools developed by the State Bar of Texas’s Law Related Education Division. Many read from James L. Haley and Marilyn P. Duncan’s well-written and extraordinarily illustrated seventh grade textbook, Taming Texas: How Law and Order Came to the Lone Star State.

The cover of the Taming Texas judicial civics book

In his foreword to Taming Texas, Texas Supreme Court Chief Justice Nathan Hecht explained the book’s purpose and the Society’s hopes by asking some of the most important questions any jurist can ask:
The laws people choose for themselves describe the society they live in. Does it protect individual liberty? Respect property rights? Limit government? Treat people equally? Try to provide justice to the rich and poor, the strong and weak, alike? To us, the answers may seem simple. But over the years, judges and lawmakers have fought against power and prejudice to produce the society we enjoy today. This book is about how that happened in Texas . . . .
The Society provided hardback copies of the book to middle school Texas history teachers and social science administrators free of charge, while making electronic copies available without charge in easy to download e-book formats for Kindle, iBook, and PDF at the Society’s Taming Texas website.

Students, teachers, and school administrators learned from the lawyers and judges who participated in the program. But the lawyers and judges learned, too. Many students demonstrated teachers’ extraordinary efforts to educate them about constitutional rights and duties. They often asked intelligent questions about Stephen F. Austin, Sam Houston, Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King, and the Civil Rights movement.

Fourteenth Court of Appeals Justice Bill Boyce presented a copy of 
the Taming Texas book to Lanier Middle School history teachers. 
Photo by HBA Taming Texas volunteer lawyer Curt Langley, a partner at Jackson, Walker.

Harris County 165th Judicial District Court Judge the Hon. Debra Mayfield 
and her co-presenter Kerry Manning of Shook Hardy & Bacon participate in the pilot-project. 
Photo provided by Hon. Debra I. Mayfield.

Left to right: Vincent Branch, a Texas history teacher at Gregory Lincoln Education Center; 
Texas Supreme Court Associate Justice the Hon. Jeff Brown; 2015-2016 HBA President Laura Gibson (middle); 
Kelton Parker, Texas history teacher at Gregory Lincoln Education Center; 
Warren Harris, former Texas Supreme Court Historical Society President (right). 
Photo by Tara Shockley, HBA Director of Communications.

Sabrina DiMichele of Schick & Copeland LLP teaches seventh grade 
students at Cardiff Junior High in the Katy School District. 
Photo provided by Sabrina DiMichele.

Sponsored and funded by the Fellows of the Texas Supreme Court Historical Society and spearheaded by Society Fellow Warren Harris, the Taming Texas book and its related Civics and History Project introduced Texas’s judicial system to young Houstonians. The Society’s innovative program combined colorful lore about Texas lawyers, lawmakers, judges and courts with specially designed, hands-on classroom activities developed with the assistance of the State’s best history teachers. The first book in a contemplated multi-year series, Taming Texas: How Law and Order Came to the Lone Star State, tells the story of Lone Star Texas law from 1528, when a Karankawa tribal chieftain defended the lives of castaway Spanish conquistadors, through 2016, when HBA’s volunteers identified the Justices of the Texas Supreme Court and Court of Criminal Appeals to the pilot-project’s students and teachers.

The Taming Texas book HBA’s volunteers introduced to Houston area classrooms is the first volume in a series to be published over the next five years. Each volume will focus on a different aspect of the Texas’s legal history: law on the Wild West frontier; the twenty-seven Chief Justices of the Supreme Court; women and Texas law; the evolution of the Texas court system; and similar topics. The series will become a library of colorful narratives that examine the Lone Star State’s judicial history through the lens of the law, providing an important resource for teachers, administrators, and students in seventh-grade Texas history classes.

The Taming Texas judicial civics project proved the wisdom of an important observation by James Grossman, Executive Director of the American Historical Association. “Everything has a history,” Grossman declared. “To think historically is to recognize that all problems, all situations, all institutions exist in contexts that must be understood before informed decisions can be made. No entity—corporate, government, nonprofit—can afford not to have a historian at the table.”

The Teach Texas Committee’s program sent hundreds of lawyers and judges not just to the table but into the classroom. In an outreach effort HBA President Laura Gibson organized through the HBA Teach Texas Committee, teams of volunteer judges and attorneys presented the two-part curriculum in Houston area middle schools from mid-February through mid-May 2016. The Teach Texas program sent hundreds of lawyers and judges not to the table but into the classroom. Students who learn to think historically learn to think critically.

Partnering with the Houston Bar Association, members of the Society’s project team and the State Bar Law-Related Education Department developed a wide-reaching teaching curriculum based on the Taming Texas book. In an outreach effort HBA President Laura Gibson organized through the HBA Teach Texas Committee, teams of volunteer judges and attorneys presented the two-part curriculum in middle schools throughout Houston from mid-February through mid-May.

According to former Texas Supreme Court Historical Society President and Fellow Warren Harris, the HBA rollout was extraordinarily successful. “We were extremely pleased with the success of the Houston pilot project. Anyone interested in volunteering for the second phase of the program should contact the HBA office. We look forward to taking the project statewide next year.”

HBA President Laura Gibson galvanized the Houston legal community to support the project as one of the most important initiatives of her presidency. “She appointed a committee last fall to recruit volunteers and enlist the support of school administrators and teachers,” Mr. Harris observed. “The program took off from there.”

“The Society’s Fellows hoped the judicial civics program would have an impact over time,” said Society Fellows Chair David J. Beck, “but the success of the Houston rollout took us all by surprise.” He noted that the program will be expanded to other school districts in the 2016–2017 school year, with a goal of reaching every middle school in Texas.

The HBA Teach Texas Committee and the Texas Supreme Court Historical Society’s Fellows would like to express their enormous gratitude to the volunteer lawyers, judges, and justices who made the pilot project a success and wish to convey their special appreciation of HBA President Laura Gibson, HBA Executive Director Kay Simms, HBA Director of Education Ashley Steininger, HBA Communications Assistant Ariana Ochoa, and HBA Director of Communications Tara Shockley for their support during phase of the Taming Texas/Teach Texas pilot-project in Houston. A special thank you goes to HBA Director of Projects Bonnie Simmons, who invested an enormous amount of time, energy, and intellect to match HBA volunteers with seventh grade school teachers and classes interested in learning about how the Rule of Law came to the Lone Star State.

Under Warren Harris’s leadership, the HBA Teach Texas pilot project will transform into a state-wide judicial civics project in the 2016-2017 school year. Fourteenth Court of Appeals Justice Brett Busby, Harris County 61st Judicial District Court Judge the Hon. Erin Lunceford, and Houston attorney and Texas Supreme Court Historical Society Journal Executive Editor David A. Furlow comprise the current, 2016-2017 Co-Chairs of the HBA Teach Texas Committee.

BA Teach Texas Committee Co-Chairs Warren Harris (upper left); 
Harris County 61st Judicial District Court Judge Erin Lunceford (upper middle); 
Fourteenth Court of Appeals Justice Brett Busby (upper right); 
and Texas Supreme Court Historical Society Journal Executive Editor David A. Furlow (lower middle). 
Photo by Ariana Ochoa, HBA Communications Assistant.

HBA volunteers Daryl Moore (standing at chalkboard) and Joann Storey (back to camera) 
taught the last Taming Texas class at Cornerstone Academy Middle School, Spring Branch ISD. 
They and their students had a great time. Photo by David A. Furlow.