Professional Learning

Pop Quiz: Justice Sandra Day O’Connor

The former Supreme Court Justice shares some school memories and her latest work in support of civics education to the classroom.

October 28, 2009

More Americans can name all of the Three Stooges than can name the three branches of government. This, from a 2006 Zogby International survey, is the sort of thing that doesn't sit well with retired Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor. And so the self-proclaimed "first cowgirl" on the Supreme Court (she famously grew up on a cattle ranch in southeastern Arizona named the Lazy B) is doing with civics education what she's tried to do all her life: make things right.

At 79, O'Connor has helped launch a Web site called, an interactive collection of civics resources, lesson plans, and games for teachers and students. The project, made all the more urgent by the increasing disappearance of civics instruction from American classrooms, is just the latest from the former justice.

After a quarter century on the bench, O'Connor seems merely to have shifted her sphere of influence. Today, she's chancellor of the College of William & Mary, has been a member of the Iraq Study Group, lectures at law schools, and has written a children's book since retiring from the Court.

But civics education is especially important to O'Connor, and so she's dedicated herself -- and her extensive legal network -- to helping teachers find new ways to keep their students informed about the judicial system.

"Knowledge of our Constitution and the role of our courts is not handed down in the gene pool," O'Connor has said. "Each generation must learn about our system of government and the citizen's role."

What is your idea of a perfect teacher?

There is no such thing. But I like teachers who are smart, kind, imaginative, and funny.

What was your most memorable school experience?

Probably the days I spent in my history class in grade school, learning from a great teacher.

What was the low point of your school career?

The time I hit a softball through a school window.

Did you go to public school, or private school?

I went to seven public schools over the course of 12 years as my family moved around while I was growing up.

Where did you fit in your schools' social hierarchies?

Hard to say. I got good grades, and most students thought only nerds got good grades.

If you could change one thing about education in the United States, what would it be?

I think we need more civics education that is relevant and engaging to students. Civics is about what people can do to affect the future of their communities and our nation. Unfortunately, it is often taught in a dull way without clear demonstration about why the facts matter. As a result, students think civics is boring. Instead, we need civics curricula that are exciting and empowering. We need to show students how they can be active civic participants and affect issues that they care about.

What is impossible to learn in school?

I think some things have to be experienced. It is difficult to learn about the reality of another culture in a classroom. It can be difficult to become fluent in a language without immersion.

What should they be teaching?

Civics! Almost half of the states no longer require civics education for high school graduation. I think that is a big problem because civics education is the key to ensuring that we have informed and active citizens who will wisely decide the future of our nation.

If you wrote a textbook, what would it be called?

Well, it would not be a textbook; it would be a Web site. In fact, I've lead the effort to accomplish this already. The site is Our Courts, and you can visit it at Our goal is to provide relevant and engaging activities to teach middle school students about our courts and our system of government.

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