by Tricia Ebner
It’s a problem almost every teacher faces at some point in his or her career. The warmer weather brings out spring fever, and it doesn’t take long before a crescendo of voices is saying something like, “So spring is here and testing is over . . . we’re done, right?” Even if students never utter those words, that attitude can come across in students’ posture, behavior, and quality of work in the last weeks of the school year.
So how does a hard-working, tired teacher keep his or her students enthused and engaged right up to the end of the year? Is it possible to keep students whole-heartedly engaged, focused, and excited about learning without burning oneself out along the way? The answer is yes, it is not only possible, but there are some great resources to help a person do just that.
I’ve always wanted our spring activities to be culminations of all we’ve done throughout the year, bringing together the reading, writing, speaking, listening, and thinking skills we’ve nurtured and developed. The longer I teach, the more I realize that project-based activities are exactly what I’m looking for. Problem-based projects that require using strong communication skills work most effectively.
My students’ favorite end-of-year activity is conducting mock trials, such as the People v. Dr. Grimesby case found here at the Ohio Center for Law-Related Education. In all honesty, it’s probably my favorite approach, too. Using mock trials gives me the opportunity to introduce students to how lawyers use close reading and listening skills to analyze witnesses’ statements. They have to think critically in order to design questions that will get at the information they need in order to defend their client or prove their case. The student-attorneys must use evidence and logic in crafting closing arguments, applying those skills to a real-world task. It’s also a great way to integrate social studies and language arts. As proof of how powerful mock trials can be, a few years ago during a particularly hot final week of school, several students were involved in presenting the case while an entire class of students sat still in a stifling hot room, listening to every word being spoken so that they could fulfill their roles as jurors in the case. This kind of project has the potential to keep students deeply engaged in learning.
To get started with using mock trials, I found some good resources about our court system so I could craft activities to help students better understand it. One resource I found useful is this one about our federal courts. There are a number of activities here that can be used to practice skills that might ultimately be used in a mock trial. Once I decided to proceed with the mock trial, I considered the roles I needed for the trial I wanted to use and made decisions such as how many prosecution and defense attorneys to include. I’ve found it’s best to ensure each student has a role to play within the trial, whether as witness or attorney, so that each student has the opportunity to develop questions and practice direct and cross examination. While there are other important roles within a courtroom, those roles typically aren’t as engaging in the pre-trial work. For example, I have assigned students to the role of jury, and while attorneys, defendants, and witnesses are involved in trial preparations, I’ve had the jurors research issues surrounding the case. This hasn’t been as successful because a mock trial has a dramatic component to it, and it’s much more exciting to be part of the action rather than sitting on the sidelines, watching. When I’ve involved my students in mock trials, I’ve usually been able to find another class willing to serve as the jury. One of the benefits of having an outside jury is that my students view this as a more authentic audience, and this tends to prompt a stronger performance from each of them.
For the trial itself, I often serve as judge, but sometimes I’m able to get another adult in my building, such as another teacher or an administrator, to serve in that role. It’s exciting to see the students step into their roles and go through a court case, making statements, asking questions, raising objections, and issuing closing arguments to convince the jury of the defendant’s guilt or defend his or her innocence. Throughout the trial I take notes on students’ performances and evaluate their public speaking skills using a rubric. I also videotape the trial and have students watch it to evaluate their own performance.
Mock trials have worked well for me for several years now. Through this work, I can observe my students’ strengths and needs in discussion and collaboration. My students practice close reading and questioning skills for an authentic, real-world purpose. Writing and public speaking skills are also a natural part of the process.There are a number of problem-solving, project-based activities that can be very engaging and rewarding for students at the end of the school year. Why not consider trying one out for yourself this year?