Teachers on summer vacation become students in behind-the-scenes look at Supreme Court

WASHINGTON (AP) — Adele Dalesandro stepped inside the U.S. Supreme Court wide-eyed. She spoke in whispers, trying to absorb everything about the room she had read so much about but had never seen.

Her first impression was that it was much smaller than she expected.

"This is not something you can replicate in the classroom," said Dalesandro, who has taught high school government and politics classes in St. Charles, Ill., for 14 years.

The teacher had become a student again.

Dalesandro was part of a group of 30 social studies teachers from around the country who got a behind-the scenes look this week at the Supreme Court as part of the Supreme Court Summer Institute for Teachers. The six-day program that ended Tuesday covered subjects ranging from choosing the court's docket to nominating a justice, an especially relevant topic this summer with the upcoming confirmation hearings for Supreme Court nominee Elena Kagan.

The teachers also got to meet Cecilia Marshall, the widow of the late Justice Thurgood Marshall, and Chief Justice John Roberts, who has been involved with the program since it started in 1995.

It was a rare opportunity for teachers like Dalesandro. Almost half the teachers had never walked through the doors of the nation's highest court and many of their students are said to be able to name more American Idol judges than Supreme Court ones.

Lee Arbetman, director of the nonprofit organization Street Law Inc. of Silver Spring, Md., which organizes the teachers' institute, said many social studies curriculums in public schools fail to cover the judicial branch of the federal government, something not usually found on state standardized tests, in a meaningful way. The institute tries to demystify the court for teachers, he said.

"We've sort of seen this as an opportunity to pick up where textbooks have left off," he said. "Courts count. What courts decide make a difference in their daily lives. The law is too important to reserve solely for lawyers."

More than 150 educators applied for the 30 spots in this year's institute, he said.

The Street Law program taps into the same vein as iCivics.org — a website developed by retired Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, which encourages kids to learn more about the U.S. government through online games.

Bruce Buckle, an Advanced Placement government teacher from Montoursville, Pa., said he attended this program during his summer vacation to develop an understanding of the court.

"A teacher of mine used to say that a good teacher always tries to sit on the other side of the desk from time to time, so that's what I'm doing," Buckle said.

In addition to classes, the teachers toured the Supreme Court on Friday and met in a closed-door session with court clerks. On Monday, they returned to the courtroom as the justices handed down decisions on several cases, including cases involving the war on terrorism and biotech agriculture.

The program is partially paid for by the Supreme Court Historical Society. Many of the teachers are sponsored by their school districts or local bar associations and only have to pay their hotel costs.

Dalesandro and Julia Hershenberg, a Garland, Texas, government teacher, snaked through the halls of the court during their free time, stopping at the gift shop to buy Supreme Court pencils for their students back home.

"Oh, my gosh! I have to have a picture of this," said Hershenberg, standing in front of a display of O'Connor's robes. "Sandra! I love her! She's from El Paso!"

Short of meeting President Barack Obama, Dalesandro said she reached the pinnacle of her teaching career at the institute. She said she was leaving Washington with new lesson plans and renewed excitement about teaching the judicial branch, but she will not be able to explain the entire experience to her students.

"They won't have a grasp of history until they get older," she said. "It was unbelievable."