Student Mock Trial: From the Classroom to the Courthouse

February 24, 2020

I remember my 8th grade mock trial from 2006 like it was yesterday. From the weeks of group research, to the pesky 7th graders coming to watch, to dressing up in character, I remember and cherish it all. After becoming an 8th grade social studies teacher two years ago, I knew I was going to fit a mock trial into my curriculum somewhere. The value of a mock trial is immeasurable: it provides students an opportunity to get engaged and involved in civics by examining the judicial system, learning research skills, and participating in court procedures. I just needed to pick an appropriate trial, gather all the resources, pace it correctly, oh and find enough parts for 37 students! So I knocked out this to-do list one-by-one over several weeks. I would end up choosing the same trial I did as an 8th grader: John Brown’s Raid on Harpers Ferry. After checking that off, I got to scouring the internet not only for primary and secondary resources on the historical events that took place, but also on how to run a mock trial. That’s where iCivics came in. 

Laying the Groundwork with iCivics
A mock trial requires a lot of students’ background knowledge on individual rights and court procedures, so I laid the groundwork of this in our unit on government two months prior to our trial date. An 8th grade California standard is to be able to identify the fundamental liberties granted by the Bill of Rights. iCivics has two thorough and succinct lessons  — You’ve Got Rights and Amendment Mini-Lesson —  that help to deepen students’ understanding of individual rights and how this important historical document is still relevant to this day. Additionally, these iCivics resources help facilitate a meaningful class discussion about exactly who had these rights at the time, which segues nicely into students playing, Do I Have a Right? In this fun educational game, students run a law firm and decide cases about constitutional rights. This is such an engaging way for students to practice the concepts learned in this multi-day lesson on the Bill of Rights. 

From Courtroom to Classroom
The last big task on my to-do list was to find enough parts for 37 8th graders — no easy feat! In collaboration with a parent volunteer who is an attorney, we decided on having students participate in the roles of judge(s), bailiff, jury, prosecution and defense witnesses, prosecution and defense lawyers, and court news reporters. How was I to get my students to understand not only their role, but the roles of their peers? Once again, I turned to iCivics! I used iCivics’ Trial Court ‘Go Fish as a fun way to get students interested in their part and being their research. Some of the court roles included in the iCivics lesson didn’t apply to our mock trial, but it was still valuable for the students to learn about since they are real jobs in a real court of law.

“We the Jury”
Every student had several tasks to complete in the month leading up to the mock trial. Witnesses had to source and analyze primary sources and figure out exactly what they saw the night of the Raid on Harpers Ferry. They had to write a witness statement and work one-on-one with a student lawyer to practice being questioned. Judges, the bailiff, and lawyers all had an engaging lesson on court objections by a guest speaker who is a civil attorney and school parent. The news reporters researched and wrote opinion pieces that reflected what would have actually been published in 1859. 

The jury was the hardest group for me to create a long-term, engaging project for since they really aren’t supposed to know anything about the court case until the day of the trial. I had seen that other teachers had the members of the jury research and present the the different roles and responsibilities of the participants of a courtroom. The jurors used the information from iCivics’ Trial Court ‘Go Fish’ as a reliable, accurate resource in their 10 minute long presentation to the class. A common question that I get from the jurors is, “What will it be like for the jury in court on the actual day of the trial?” I discuss with them the need for them to take diligent notes, to remain as unbiased as possible, and for an openness in their jury deliberation. I reinforce these concepts by having the jury play iCivics’ We The Jury which is a game that has students analyze evidence, weight the evidence, and use the right arguments to reach a fair and impartial verdict. 

Try A Mock Trial With Your Students!
If you’re looking to do a mock trial with your students, I suggest following the steps I used above with a relevant historical cause or explore iCivics’s new Trial Court Simulation lesson, which allows students to participate in scripted fictional trial about an alleged breach of contract between the buyer of a car, Blair Bayer, and the seller of the car, Skylar Cellar. Students learn the vocabulary and process of small claims court and have the chance to play plaintiff, defendant, judge, and jury. This lesson and simulation are complete with witness statements, evidence, a trial script, and jury instructions!

Written By Deirdre O’Connor

Deirdre O’Connor is a middle school social studies teacher in Folsom, California. She has been a judge at the California National History Day competition and looks for innovative ways to get students more involved in civics and history.  Follow her on Twitter @historywithmsoc and check out her class website with all the resources for the mock trial here!