Should Dr. Henry Jekyll be excused for the sinister actions of Edward Hyde? Did Catniss Everdeen’s rule-bending actions at the end of The Hunger Games constitute a breach of contract?
In most English Language Arts programs, these questions of moral and legal ambiguity are literary discussion points — thematic frameworks that exemplify powerful storytelling, but don’t necessarily get resolved.
But in Mary Finnegan’s English Language Arts (ELA) class at St. Isidore School — an elementary school based in Quakertown, PA — morally dubious fictional characters are finally facing justice. That’s because for the last year she’s been casting 8th grade students into the roles of defendants, witnesses, bailiffs, and counsel for a new kind of ELA experience: literature-based mock trials.
For 5–6 weeks, they gather evidence, write arguments, prepare testimonies, and practice their role-playing skills. Then with the help of volunteers from The Rendell Center for Civics and Civic Engagement — a non-profit that provides programming and resources to Pennsylvania classrooms — the students finally hold their mock trial, which is presided over by a very real judge!
While ELA has always been about character analysis and argumentation, this mock trial program encourages students to delve into text, not just for their grade, but to prove their point for or against a fictional character on trial.
For St. Isidore’s program this year, Finnegan selected Johnny from The Outsiders to stand trial for murder. While the character dies before the end of the book (1967 spoilers!) without facing legal repercussions, the mock trial can take place at any point in the timeline — whenever is convenient to make the trial work.
From early on, staff members and volunteers from The Rendell Center are actively working to educate students, guide the program, and ensure everything is as realistic as possible.
“The Rendell Center comes in to lead the program,” Finnegan said. “They talk about the legal system and what goes on in a courtroom. They define the difference between a rule and a law, and they help students understand vocabulary, so they know (for instance) what a defendant and a plaintiff are.”
Throughout the program, the teacher is more of a facilitator and coach. The students, meanwhile, do most of the work preparing for the trial.
“The class is divided between the defense and the prosecution,” Finnegan explained. “Role selection is handled by the students within their groups with the stipulation that everyone has a job and everyone has an opportunity to speak. So we have multiple attorneys on each side, and each side has a bailiff, for instance.”
“When teams are set, students go back into the text to find evidence. Each team prepares their side, preparing a legal script for the trial,” Finnegan continued. “Formulating questions for the examination of witnesses and cross-examinations is a challenge. The students have to use the text to support their rationale for asking a question, and think about how the opposing side might use the answer. It’s hard, but I love that it forces them to take a closer look at the text — it inspires lots of great thinking!”
When each side’s script is ready, The Rendell Center sends additional volunteers, often lawyers, to polish both scripts. They ensure the terminology is legitimate and realistic, and that mistakes made by one side are objected to appropriately by the opposing counsel.
“Everything you would prepare for a real trial, these kids do on a lower level,” Finnegan remarked.
With all case-work complete, it’s time for practice… and lots of it. After all, the students must play their roles in front of an actual judge!
At the end of the program, the mock trial is brought to life in a formal court setting — or as close to it as possible. Finnegan told us that in the program’s spring session, a Northampton County judge came dressed in his full robes to preside over a courtroom set up in the school’s chapel. But in the fall, Finnegan’s class traveled to the courthouse in Philadelphia. There, in the most official setting possible, they were fortunate to have their mock trial presided over by the Honorable Marjorie Rendell herself.
“I love seeing the excitement in the students’ eyes as they enter the courtroom, and as they take the stand or approach the podium to make an argument,” Judge Rendell said. “The students take their role very seriously and show keen insight about the case. If only all of our citizens could have this experience before they serve on a jury.”
The students of Mary Finnegan’s classroom share their teacher’s and Judge Rendell’s enthusiasm. The students who played Johnny was relieved to be acquitted (both in the spring and fall), and their classmates were enthused about nearly every aspect of literature-based mock trials:
“My favorite part was creating the script to read in front of the judge, knowing that a real judge is going to answer you!” —Dante
“Doing this helped me become a better speaker, and helped me become better at reading.” —Kaden
“I’ll always remember going to the courthouse, performing in front of a real judge, and having fun with all of my friends.” —Brianna
Fun as the project may be, it also serves a more lasting purpose. Beth Specker, Executive Director of The Rendell Center, has helped set up mock trials programs at 27 Pennsylvania schools, including 6 AOPS pilot schools, to enhance what students were learning in classrooms.
“We need to make sure the next generation understands how our judicial system works,” Specker said.
Mary Finnegan is already planning to run another literature-based mock trial for 2018-2019. The biggest challenge at this stage? Choosing a new book to base it on. While The Outsiders made for a fascinating story and case for her current batch of 8th graders, 7th graders (who acted as the jury) have already seen both sides’ strongest arguments play out.
Next year, St. Isidore’s students could be hearing testimony from the likes of Beowulf or Ender Wiggin. And if The Rendell Center is successful in its mission, even more characters will be on trial in classrooms across AOPS. Will they be found innocent or guilty? It will be up to the students to make their case.