Students have been practicing paragraph organization since 6th grade. They know that they need to write a topic sentence that takes a position, provide specific details for support, and build it all up to a conclusion. This spring, our 7th grade English Language and Literature students came to appreciate the importance of this format on a whole new level during our mock trial unit as they experienced the impact of their words when presented with clarity, accuracy, and support to make a clear point to settle a case. To prepare for a mock trial, students are given the facts of the case and a number of affidavits from key and expert witnesses. Students must use their best analytical, organizational, and public speaking abilities in order to make the strongest possible argument for their prosecution or defense team.
We began the unit with a field trip downtown to get a sense of what happens in real-life courtrooms. Since we tend to be heavily influenced by cinematic portrayals of courtroom dramas, this is such a valuable real-world experience that allows students to have a more informed perspective. We spent the morning at the Multnomah County Courthouse visiting trials in session, and then we spent the afternoon at the Federal Courthouse where we had the privilege of using a courtroom to put the Big Bad Wolf on trial. We would like to thank all of our parent volunteers who chaperoned our courtroom tours and made this day possible.
For the mock trial this year, 7th graders tried a criminal case involving a teenage driver, texting, a winding road, and a fatality accident with an elderly driver. The students worked hard to examine the facts of the case and establish pros and cons for both the prosecution and the defense, as well as prepare direct and cross examinations for each witness. In this process, students gained key skills and experience with public speaking, questioning, close listening, and impromptu response.
We are grateful to our parent judges, Laurie Shertz, Holly Levow, and Hank Sawtelle, who came to our classes to officiate the trials, which spanned two days. Thank you all so much for your time and expertise! Each class had a slightly different verdict depending on their performances, but they all learned about how poor decisions such as texting and driving can have serious life-altering consequences for all involved.
We would like to give a special thank you to Laurie Shertz, who has gone way above and beyond with her time and attention to us, radically improving our mock trial unit since she volunteered to be a judge when her current 8th grade daughter was in 6th grade. Over the past three years, Laurie has, quite literally, opened so many doors for us, from securing a federal courtroom to set the stage and creating the Big Bad Wolf practice trial, to curating four cases for us to rotate through in the future. Laurie gave us the confidence to take on criminal trials while giving us invaluable professional development, as we learned how to fine tune our approach. It's been a tremendous pleasure to work with such a passionate professional who has selflessly given her time and expertise, as she is truly invested in our community.
Perhaps writing analytical paragraphs isn't nearly as exciting as participating in a mock trial, but now our students see that these activities draw on the same skill set: the opening statement is just like a topic sentence, the questions are just like the supporting sentences and details, and the closing argument is just like the conclusion. If there is one part missing, they see how the case (or the paragraph) falters and loses its impact. With four different verdicts rendered from four different trials, our students realized just how important each part can be. From start to finish, the mock trial draws on a real world context, connects it to our language arts curriculum, and extends beyond. That's what great units are all about!