Parallels between jury duty and high school

Last week I read a blog post that resonated with me and many others, and then unexpectedly had an experience that brought home the author’s point in a memorable way. The blog post, titled “A veteran teacher turned coach shadows 2 students for 2 days – a sobering lesson learned,” describes how an experienced teacher at a private high school shadowed two students for a day each, to better understand the high school experience from a student perspective. Her key findings include:

1. “Students sit all day, and sitting is exhausting… students move almost never. And never is exhausting. In every class for four long blocks, the expectation was for us to come in, take our seats, and sit down for the duration of the time. By the end of the day, I could not stop yawning and I was desperate to move or stretch.”

2. “High School students are sitting passively and listening during approximately 90% of their classes…It was not just the sitting that was draining but that so much of the day was spent absorbing information but not often grappling with it.”

When I read the post I thought—yes, that sounds like my high school experience. I suppose not much has changed in some schools in the decades since I was a high school student. I also compared the experience being described to some of the blended schools that I have visited, in which students are much more engaged because they are actively learning in a variety of ways that limit the amount of time in which the teacher is lecturing to the entire class.

The next day I began a three-day experience that brought home just how stultifying a day of simply listening can be, and how much more engaging the alternatives can be, when I was called for jury duty.

The first morning of jury duty was somewhat absorbing, as the judge and attorneys asked jurors to reflect on their life experiences (so that they could determine who would be struck from the jury, with or without cause). We weren’t just listening, because we had to be ready to answer a question to the entire jury, or to answer a possible cold-call question.

Then we moved into two days of opening statements, witness testimony, and closing arguments—and all we did was listen. We were barred from having any discussion of the case with anyone on or off the jury. We were not allowed to look up any information about the case, press reports, or legal terms. Our time was controlled by the judge, who told us when to arrive, when we would take breaks, and when we would be done for the day.

The case was compelling. It included felony charges related to a domestic violence incident that involved three Mexican nationals, so in addition to the seriousness of the charges for the defendant, it included implications for US citizenship and/or deportation for at least three people.

And yet…by the second half of the first afternoon, all of us on the jury found ourselves struggling to concentrate, and to track all that was being described, charged, and defended. It wasn’t for lack of trying, as we all recognized the seriousness of the case. But our ability to ask questions was severely limited, and we didn’t have the time or the option to grapple with the information. It was a tidal wave of testimony that overwhelmed us, and left us exhausted at the end of the days.

The closing of the testimony, and beginning of deliberations, immediately changed the demeanor of the jurors. Now we were in (partial) control, and everyone on the jury dug into the discussion. We wrestled with legal definitions, assessed credibility of witnesses providing different accounts, and weighed contradictory evidence. It was hard work, and on that third day we kept at it for 13 hours, ending near 9:30pm with a verdict.

Part of the reason for the dedication, I’m sure, is that everyone recognized the ramifications of the charges for all involved. But I was also struck by the change in the group as we went from at first being forced into passive listening, and then subsequently into actively working with the details of the case. We examined evidence, shared notes, traded ideas, and argued the various points. Nobody ended the deliberations with the same set of views that they had started with.

The portion of the trial that resembled the blogger’s description of her high school from a student’s perspective was tiring, deadening, and stultifying. The portion of the trial that looked like a good blended school was hard, lively, and engaging.