Have you considered asking your high school students to re-enact famous trials of historical figures like Galileo or Nazi propagandist Julius Streicher or a literary character like Tom Robinson in “To Kill a Mockingbird”? Historical and literary mock trials are an effective tool for student learning and for authentic assessment of that learning in social studies and English classes.
Students perform publically and engage in some of the most challenging and multi-faceted intellectual work that we as teachers can provide. These mock trials push students to cultivate habits of perspective and empathy, to analyze choices, to speak publicly and to work in groups. Just as important, mock trials are more than just fun because they also require close reading of texts and the development of questioning techniques.
During the approximately four days of preparation leading up to a mock trial, I mostly serve as a coach while my students are engaged in the heavy-duty intellectual work of a lawyer — reading carefully, crafting questions, thinking about holes in arguments, piecing together a case. When trial day comes and we are, hopefully, in an actual courtroom, they’ve finished the intellectual lifting and now need to put it in practice, in public, for all to see. The trial is a performance of their learning in the truest sense. The students recognize the added weight of their work. One of my 10th-graders commented, “Being in an actual courthouse made the stakes higher, which motivated me to spend more time preparing and to think a little harder.”
We may recreate an inquisition-style trial of Martin Luther, an imaginary trial of Kino in “The Pearl” or an international tribunal of a Hutu priest in the Rwandan genocide. The performance that takes place on trial day adds an unforgettable texture to the experience. The pressure and nerves of enacting the trial are outweighed by the joy, the giggles, the shouts of encouragement and the “ooohs” from the audience when a lawyer or a witness hits a particularly strong point.
Given the advanced academic work involved in legal questioning, you might imagine that only highly skilled students can shine. That is not the case. First, the multiple avenues for differentiation (based on character roles) allow each student to take on a task that meets his or her abilities and to succeed at it. Second, since students have four or five days of preparation and the chance to script or practice questions and answers, learners who need a little more time can still achieve great success on the stand. Lastly, the performance aspect of the actual trial often brings out unexpected stars.
Creating and executing a mock trial is certainly not a simple task. You need to choose a relevant case and a defendant whose guilt is genuinely ambiguous. You need to use real historical and literary texts for the evidence statements or affidavits. You should assign the most difficult tasks such as cross-examination and writing opening or closing statements to your stellar students. And you might need to put in a little extra time during lunch or after school to support some learners.
When you finish a trial, you should debrief with the students about whether justice was achieved and whether the trial format was the best form of justice for the particular crime. Discuss with them what they did well and what they could do better. Make sure to also sit back and listen to their comments and let them take pride in what they have accomplished.
Mock trials might be extra work for students and teachers alike, but they lead to what my colleague called “the most fun day of the year.”
“I felt like the mock trial was important because we worked so hard for all of us to get to that moment,” one student told me. “The way of learning is really exciting, and it gets me really interested in the topic.”
I hope you try this strategy and have just as remarkable an experience.
David Sherrin received the 2014 Robert H. Jackson Center National Award for Teaching Justice. He is the chair of the social studies department and teaches English at Harvest Collegiate HS in Manhattan. He is also the author of “Judging for Themselves: Using Mock Trials to Bring Social Studies and English to Life,” from which this column was adapted.