SOUTH LOOP — Christy Gerst embarked on a major career change seven years ago, but the former attorney has never spent very long outside a court room.
These days, she does her litigating in the Mock Trial classroom she helped build at Jones College Prep, home of the legal studies program she developed — one that's full enrolled in its first year.
"We emptied out all the desks and chairs you typically see, and put a little courtroom in instead, with a jury box, and a bankers table for the judge," said Gerst, who teaches AP European History and Honors World Studies in addition to heading the Honors Pre-Law program.
Gerst moved to Chicago in 2001 after finishing law school, and her first boss "made the mistake of sending me out to teach classes to my clients."
It was a mistake, Gerst says, because "I really got into it. As I pondered it more and more, I thought, this is really something I can see myself doing as a job. I did a little research and decided to go back to Northwestern University to get a teaching degree. And I just never looked back."
After five years in the legal world, Gerst started teaching history in 2007. She landed at Jones in 2009, and last year Gerst and a colleague who had studied engineering were tasked with beefing up the school's pre-professional programming in their former fields.
The classes are supported by Chicago Public Schools' Career and Technical Education program, which offeres pre-professional training in 11 disciplines, including law and public safety.
Gerst decided to approach the pre-law program's rigorous honors program in the most challenging way: staging mock trials for a real courtroom experience inspired by her own legal education.
"That has been the most daunting thing: how do you teach trial advocacy to 14 year olds?" she said. We've stripped it down to the bare bones ... I just kept pulling different pieces of different curriculums from different places and cobbling together ways to make all of it make sense."
"We've worked on some very complicated things: How you introduce documents as evidence and in an opening statement — you're not allowed to argue. How can you maybe paint a picture in your opening statement that is factual, but perhaps more one-sided in a way that it's just shy of argumentative?"
Gerst said she feels like she never stops working. Last week, while on vacation, she read about a situation in Ukraine that had connections to legal principles her students had worked with earlier in the year.
Before hitting the beach, she hopped online to post discussion topics to her class website.
She says she considers that schedule a privilege, not a burden.
"I try to convince my kids that homework isn't just this awful thing we do at the end of the night to get over with so we can go watch TV," she said. "That living an academic life can be thrilling and invigorating in and of itself."
Gerst says if her students' current enthusiasm for their pre-law classes is any indication, she's working with a group of life-long learners, something she hopes to reinforce through their four years at Jones.
"We've done three mock trials in the class this year: we did a murder trial, we did an arson trial and then we did a burglary," she said. "They actually are in the courtroom giving opening statements and closing arguments and calling on witnesses."
"We have law school students come in and they're shocked that the kids are able to do this and they're just freshmen, they're just 14. its like a 'Law and Order' episode. The kids love it."
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