Common Core standards have been a hot topic of debate and derision over the past few years. Admittedly, hearing the word "standard" in relation to teaching is enough to make my eczema flare up, jumping straight to anxiety-fueled nightmares of more testing (gross) and an ever-expanding narrative on how schools are failing our kids. That being said, I'm not as anti-Core as many people out there. I'm not in love with it, and I would never put following the standards above doing what's best for the kids in my room, but the standards themselves are not the enemy in my classroom (except the grammar ones that kids can't understand without proper foundation and context).
Being the competitive person that I am, I see the reading, writing, speaking, and listening parts of the Core as being more of a challenge. How can I hit as many areas as possible in one lesson while still making it awesome for learners? How can I follow the rules while also obliterating them? How can I align Core standards to what I know is pedagogically sound instead of the all-too common process of aligning to the Core that teachers are encouraged (or forced) to do? How can I engage my students in close reading activities without making them hate reading? How can I get teenagers to wear dress up clothes and leave their insecurities aside when speaking in front of an audience?
I can hold Mock Trial in the Honorable Judge Hauptsteen's Courtroom. That's how I can do it all.
I teach a Suspense Fiction unit in 8th grade. After an initial dramatic out-loud reading (by me) of two of the short stories in the unit ("The Tell Tale Heart" by Edgar Allan Poe and "Lamb to the Slaughter" by Roald Dahl), we do our close reading. I put up posters in the four corners of the classroom marked:
1. Mentally Insane Words
2. Mentally Insane Actions
3. Calculated Killer Words
4. Calculated Killer Actions
(I stole the idea from the graphic organizer (link on their page) that goes with this CPALMS lesson plan: http://bit.ly/1SIRFgA. I don't follow the whole lesson; just use their chart for gathering evidence.)
Students work alone or in groups (their choice) to fill as many sticky notes as possible for each category. Sticky notes include the quote from the text that shows one of the four things listed above and the page number it can be found on. They place the sticky note on the corresponding posters around the room. This is the legwork for the lawyers in the trial because it gathers all the direct evidence from both texts. Since students don't know which story their trial will focus on, and don't know their roles for trial yet, they all have to be equally invested in the close reading process.
(One big mistake I made in the first few years of Mock Trial: I used to make only lawyers and witnesses responsible for gathering evidence. First, it's not fair when they also have to carry such a heavy burden during the actual trial. Second, it prevents others from having the same level of close reading engagement with the text.)
(I forgot to take close ups of the sticky note posters, but you get the idea. You can see them in the background throughout the room in most of the action shots.)
After gathering the evidence in those four categories for both stories (for "Lamb/Slaughter" insane means temporary insanity due to shock), each class period gets to vote on which story they'll take to trial. Majority rules. This year, that meant two periods of "Slaughter" and one of "Heart."
Students can plead their case for desired parts through an audition or a persuasive essay, or just take the luck of whatever I choose for them. I decide roles based on temperament and skill areas. If I know someone is a highly-opinionated, strong argument writer, I'm going to make that person a lawyer. If someone has a flair for drama, I'm going to use that person as a witness. The quiet, thoughtful classmates are jury members.
Once they receive their roles, the week leading up to trial is different for everyone. I have jurors create a mini-research one-pager on an area of the justice system they are interested in. Kids who have divorced parents can gravitate toward divorce laws; those who just earned their driver's permits look at driving laws; some look at bigger things like the death penalty or prison sentencing. Anything they want. They have to research, include a bibliography, and write a hybrid informative-opinion paper on their topic. The completed paper is their ticket to enter the trial. Without the completed paper, they don't get to come into the courtroom. (Out of the 30ish students who were jurors this year, only one didn't follow through. That was the first kid I've ever had who didn't have it done. Mock Trial is not an event that kids want to miss, period.)
Prosecution lawyers and witnesses and Defense lawyers and witnesses are split between the classroom and the hallway on work days so they don't overhear each other. Lawyer teams are responsible for dividing themselves into:
1. Opening Statement
2. Direct Examination
3. Cross Examination
4. Closing Statement
Most years, my lawyer teams have four people, so this divides evenly. This year, 8th grade is a small class, so some had to do double duty. Lawyers can use all sticky notes to help with their case. Lawyers are allowed to have note cards and copies of the source story in front of them to verify truth in what witnesses say while on the stand. They are also responsible for preparing their witnesses for attack from the opposing side.
Witnesses have to memorize everything they can about their role in the story. They are not allowed to have notes on the stand, and can be discredited if they say something that isn't true according to the original story. If lawyers from the opposing side are trying to trick them, they can say "I don't recall" or "I don't know" to avoid discrediting themselves. Preparing to handle the pressure of being on the stand is key for witnesses.
During the trial, the jury fills out an evaluation of what evidence, lawyers, and witnesses are most persuasive and why. These guided notes are to help them organize their thoughts and have reasoning for why they vote the way they do, instead of falling into the middle school trap of voting for friends or crushes.
Lawyers doing their thing!
Mock Trial is an event that lends itself to equal parts excitement and anxiety for some kids. I am a task-master in many ways in my classroom, but my kids put up with my strictness because they know I care. They know I want them to learn and grow and do their best, even when I have to drag it out of them kicking and screaming. I sent this email to the entire 8th grade on Thursday evening:
My principal refers to this as "setting the stage" for fun, learning, and success in my classroom. My husband would probably call it my uncanny ability to manipulate people to doing what I want. It's probably both.
Witnesses staying calm under pressure after solemnly swearing they are up to no good on the Sacred Text (Harry Potter) of language arts.
After both sides have presented their cases, I take the jury out to the entryway for deliberation. They bring their notes and discuss their thoughts. Their reactions are almost never unanimous, and I am always impressed by the thoughtful discussion and reasoning I hear from each juror. They take their job seriously, maybe more so than some of the adults who sit on real juries.
I stay in my judge robes all day, even in the halls, bathroom, and my 7th grade classes. It makes the 7th graders pumped for next year, and the 6th graders probably even more terrified of me than they already are. I don't answer to anyone who doesn't refer to me as Judge Hauptsteen. I invite all the other teachers and staff who can stop by to come in for a few minutes and watch. Everyone in the entire building knows when it is Mock Trial Day in my classroom.
Close reading does not have to be mind-numbing scouring of a text to answer ridiculous questions. Meeting speaking standards does not always have to follow formal front-of-the-classroom recitation. Evaluating evidence and creating thoughtful, text-based arguments doesn't have to be in a formal essay. Yes, formal reading, writing, and speaking skills are important, but having fun while learning is just as important for the teenage brain. Mock Trial is an activity that can make peace between higher-level ELA skills and unbridled joy of learning.
I teach 7th and 8th grade English in rural Iowa and hope to reflect, connect, and share with other English teachers. Iowa Council of Teachers of English Executive Board member. Iowa Writing Project superfan. UNI MA:TESS graduate.