The moment you enter her classroom, you sense there is something very different about Champlin Park High School teacher JoEllen Ambrose.
There’s a photo of Ambrose with the late Strom Thurmond, the longtime senator from South Carolina. There’s another picture of her with Nancy Pelosi, the former speaker of the U.S. House and current House minority leader. And there’s a photo of Ambrose with Sandra Day O’Connor, the retired U.S. Supreme Court justice.
But what can’t be captured within a picture frame is Ambrose’s unabashed enthusiasm for the courses she teaches in U.S. government and law and her creative ways of reaching students. Mock trials and town meetings, simulated presidential campaigns and Supreme Court decisions, field trips to the Capitol and district courtrooms are samplings of the teaching methods that brought Ambrose the American Bar Association’s Isidore Starr Award for excellence in law-related education. It was bestowed during the ABA’s National Law Education Conference Oct. 5 in Atlanta.
Shocked, then stunned
The national honor, which rarely goes to a teacher, came as a complete shock to Ambrose, who had no idea that she had been nominated. Equally stunning was the phone call she received announcing the award — from Isidore Starr himself, the 102-year-old former law-school professor who has spent a lifetime promoting the study of law in public schools and is one of Ambrose’s personal heroes.
Ambrose was nominated by another personal role model, Jennifer Bloom, executive director of the Learning Law and Democracy Foundation, a statewide civics and law-related education program founded in Minnesota in 1981.
“I teach at the University of Minnesota Law School and I always place students with JoEllen,” Bloom said. “They may not want to drive all the way to Champlin, but they come back and say, ‘She’s the best teacher I’ve ever seen. I wish I had her in high school.’ JoEllen has energy galore.”
Ambrose has been teaching for 35 years. It was early in her career, while she was teaching social studies to eighth-graders at Coon Rapids Junior High, that her career path took an unusual turn. Ambrose, who grew up in Bloomington, told her husband that she wanted to earn another degree. She’d graduated from the University of Minnesota in 1977 with a bachelor’s degree and high honors in secondary social studies education. She was fascinated by the law. Why not go to law school?
She enrolled at the William Mitchell College of Law in St. Paul, taking a full load — and eventually graduating magna cum laude in 1988 — while continuing to teach during the day. Her son, Dan, was born during her second year of law school. Daughter Laura was born while Ambrose was studying for the bar.
She’d taken a long maternity leave from teaching, but was eager to return to work. She interviewed at some of the largest and most prestigious law firms in the Twin Cities.
“JoEllen is brilliant,” Bloom said. “She could have had her choice of law firms.”
But she wanted to teach. She wanted to be like Bloom, who earned a journalism degree at Minnesota and a law degree at William Mitchell and then went to Harvard for a master’s in education. Bloom chose to teach and, in 1991, won the ABA’s Starr Award.
Getting students engaged
“Jennifer was teaching, at Hamline,” Ambrose recalled. “I looked at her and thought, ‘That is the job I want.’
“But how do you teach law to students?”
She met Starr, who had taught high school civics while studying to be a lawyer. As a law-school professor, he pioneered many of the interactive classroom methods that Ambrose had admired and studied. She became a part-time instructor at Hamline, from 1988 until 1990, when Bloom returned from Harvard. Two years later, Ambrose arrived at the newly opened Champlin Park High School, where she got really creative.
She had students play roles, divided them into law firms and had them argue both sides of cases. They talked about advocating for clients. They made presentations to other students, who played the role of Supreme Court justices.
She hands out pocket-size Constitutions on Constitution Day and tells students to keep them in their glove compartments.
Some students may have learned their lessons too well. One told her that he was pulled over for speeding. When the officer asked if he could look in the student’s trunk, the kid responded: “No, I can’t give you consent to look in my trunk.”
The officer was stunned.
“I cannot give you consent,” the student continued. “But if you have probable cause, I can’t stop you.”
The officer responded by saying, “What?” He then wrote the student a ticket.
“But he didn’t look in my trunk,” the student told Ambrose. “And you won’t believe what I had in my trunk. It worked like a charm.”
Ambrose said she didn’t ask about the contents of the trunk, nor did she want to know. She said she’s not necessarily trying to turn her students into lawyers, but hopes they become “aspiring citizens.”
She keeps a Jesse Ventura doll, circa 1998, in her classroom, to remind her and her students that nothing should be taken for granted.
So imagine her surprise, when she got a call on a Saturday morning, at 7:30, from ABA’s education department in Atlanta. The caller said, “We’re not telling you you won the award. But if you did, would you be home at 10:30?”
Three hours later, with Bloom among those beaming in Atlanta, Isidore Starr was on the line. Of all the people to deliver the news …
Ambrose obviously had learned the lessons she teaches very well.
“How many people,” she asked, “can say to their mentor, ‘Thank you.’ ?”