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Court is Adjourned: Mock Trials to Teach Multiple Subjects

A mock trial is often a simulator of the legal system that allows students to assume the roles of attorneys, judges, and witnesses. As a result, students can learn about legal proceedings in a controlled environment as they gain valuable experience in researching and analyzing evidence. Mock trials can also be simple classroom debates about hot button topics like school dress codes or the use of cell phones.

While we may associate mock trials with a government class, we can find their use in history, literature, and even science classrooms!

The Importance of Mock Trials

Students learn an incredible amount when they participate in mock trials. Participation can involve an active part as a judge or jury member or an inactive part as a courtroom spectator. When students participate in mock trials, they can see real-life principles applied to their learning and vice versa. 

Ideally, each student would be able to rotate their "job" in your classroom's mock trials. Participating in each role will allow students to learn each party member's various perspectives and responsibilities in a mock trial. 

In completing mock trials, students can learn: 

  • To be more understanding of one another
  • To listen before reacting
  • To educate themselves on various sides of a hot topic

Set Mock Trial Rules

To keep order in your classroom, especially when heated topics are being discussed, you need to set mock trial classroom rules:

  1. Only members of the mock trial team are allowed to speak
  2. Only the judge and jury can ask questions
  3. All students must remain respectful. There will be no offensive language or gestures, and bullying of a student's opinions will not be tolerated. As the teacher, you are the court bailiff; you make the calls to keep the courtroom civil and a safe space
  4. Remind students that "sides or opinions" may be assigned and not reflective of the person's actual beliefs

Potential Mock Trial Topics

Mock trials are a great way to get students involved in interesting topics. Students will need to research topics, form opinions, and defend their opinions with evidence found during their research. Each skill used before, during, and after mock trials applies to their educational tasks and future career goals.

History: Assume a Historical Personality

A mock trial for a history classroom may include students taking on the roles of historical figures and playing out the events the famous figures were involved in. By putting a face and a personality to history, students can examine the details of a historical event.

You may even wish to pose questions that could have altered the course of history, such as "What if JFK was only wounded and not killed in 1963?"

Literature: Argue a Text

Many pieces of literature showcase court proceedings, one most commonly taught is To Kill a Mockingbird. You may assign students to write their closing arguments for Atticus Finch as he defends Tom Robinson. To provide a contrary voice, assign half of the students to argue for the prosecution and write the closing arguments for prosecutor Horace Gilmer. 

Another idea would be to have students debate their ideal cast if they were to make a movie of The OutsidersThe Great Gatsby, or even Romeo and Juliet

Science: Current Scientific Debates

While science is often black and white, there are times those lines become grey. Ask questions like "Should all cars be electric-powered," or "Should individuals own their DNA?" Splitting your class into two groups, the for and against, such topics will allow for a discussion and presentation of relevant evidence. Selecting current arguments in the scientific community will help to merge the world with your classroom. 

Final Thoughts

Creating an environment where students can ask hard questions or tackle real-world issues is vital to their own development and personal belief creation. While you may be teaching a science or history lesson, the practice of researching and defending a topic has many practical skills necessary for students today. And when possible, choose a debate or mock trial topic that elicits a reaction from students off the bat; then, you will know they will truly do their best on the assignment. Those "oooh's and ahhh's" are what you are looking for. 

Try a mock trial in your classroom to solidify the current unit's objectives; you may find that students will grasp concepts better as they put more effort into their studies. And if you fail, we suggest another mock trial to discuss where you or the class went wrong and how you can improve.

Written by John Jones
Education World Contributor
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