images of the USA justice system

Every year, my seniors ask me, “When do we get to dress up in suits and be lawyers?”

For my Advanced Placement United States Government and Politics classes, the mock trial is the golden ring on the carousel. It’s what they work for all year long, to be able to "strut their stuff on the stage", so to speak. For years now, each class has looked forward to being a lawyer, a witness, a bailiff or even a court clerk. This is the experience where their civics, history and social studies education fully comes to life—research, understanding, performance, thinking on their feet. 

As teachers, what else would we ask for from our graduates?

Here’s some background. I’ve been the mock trial coach at my school for the past six years. My co-coach, a DA in the county, has been very inspirational to me and taught me more about trial law than I even imagined. We’ve spent countless hours working with our team. 

In working with my co-coach and the students for months on end, I began to realize that the elements of the mock trial as it pertains to civics classes is very instrumental in teaching the law and in teaching the Constitution, specifically the Bill of Rights.

The mock trial became the capstone project for my AP students.

It’s the end of the year project that tapped into the students’ competitive spirits as well as their intellect and knowledge of US government. It’s also a great display of their ability to prepare a written argument based on their study of a set amount of knowledge and then respond in a live situation on their feet. 

But, now with students at home and distance learning, here we are in a situation where live classroom performances and projects aren’t possible. But my seniors, who won’t have a senior ball or a graduation, want to have some of the experiences that they expected.

Confronted by this, our question was, how do we do a mock trial PBL unit via Zoom?

On one level, it’s pretty easy. The Constitutional Rights Foundation prepares annual cases for mock trial competition, so we can get a full case packet from their site. My kids LOVE the murder cases, so that’s where we wind up. 

The trial is broken down into about 18-20 roles, which are fully adaptable based on your class size. As a standard, there are four witnesses for the prosecution and four for the defense. (I usually assign an understudy for a few witnesses because I teach seniors and many miss some of the trial due to outside commitments.) There can be up to 4 trial attorneys per team, one for a direct exam and one for a cross examination per witness. 

As we end the year with distance learning, understand that less is more in terms of what we are asking our students to do.

Too much work, this late in the year can be demoralizing. Dividing up the roles in the trial helps the students stay engaged and stay on task.

Remember: The goal of the game here is to introduce students to the justice system, to have them develop a sense of what “due process” means, and to have them develop oral communication skills where they need to think on their feet. 

As I write this, as my school is about to take its weeklong spring recess. When we get back, students will be assigned roles as pre-trial attorneys, trial attorneys or witnesses. From there we will begin preparation for both the AP exam AND the mock trial. 

You may be asking how we do this with students working online at home. 

It’s actually not that hard. Zoom allows for breakout rooms. I will be assigning the first week we return from break as a “common reading time.” The classes will be divided into the prosecution team and the defense team, there in breakout groups, they will read the facts of the case.

Once they have a general understanding of the scope of the trial, the 8-9 students will decide among themselves who will be witnesses and who will be trial attorneys. This is an important step; students need to be able to self-identify their strengths and weaknesses and choose roles appropriate to their success. 

On the side, I will work with the four pre-trial attorneys preparing them for making their motions to the court.

From this point forward, we will continue to break down the case, role by role, examination by examination and cross exam by cross exam. My assumption is that this will take two weeks, or five class meetings per session. 

In terms of the presentation of the trial, you will need to stay tuned…

Watch for a follow-up guest blog post from Paul Hamel reporting on the culmination and results of the project.

Paul Hamel, Teacher, Marin Catholic High School, California