”Not guilty” was the verdict last week, but it was not read by a judge in the Hay River courthouse.
A Grade 10 English class at Ecole Boreale put on a mock trial over the course of three classes – two for preparation and one for performance – to learn more about the real-world implications of classic literature. Given a real-life case – albeit a bit tweaked – groups of students took turns playing witnesses and lawyers in a staged murder trial.
“It was a unique opportunity for them to try something new,” said teacher Kim Ivanko. “They learned a lot about the procedures of court and the types of questions they could ask.”
The students read To Kill a Mockingbird and The Green Mile for class recently and have been working on several projects that encourage them to take an active interest in the themes of prejudice and justice. For The Green Mile, the students participated in a debate on whether capital punishment should be reinstated in Canada.
“It was very well-researched and well-argued,” Ivanko said of the debate. “They put a lot of thought into it and came out with some great arguments.”
Michelle Staszuk, a lawyer who also serves as classroom attendant in Ivanko’s class, brought forward the idea of a mock trial. She said the students learned a lot about critical thinking and analysis, as well as gained an appreciation for being able to think quickly on their feet.
“They got practise at piecing together a narrative from disparate elements of evidence,” she said. “They also learned how information in a file can come out sounding very different when the matter reaches the court room. A trial always takes on a shape of its own and there were surprising developments that everyone had to deal with on the spot.”
The class was given reams of files to sift through, though unlike many mock trials, the files did not include a concise statement of what had actually happened.
Instead, Staszuk said they received what a real lawyer would receive including contradictory witness statements and the unprocessed results of the police investigation.
“The kids had to assess the credibility of all the evidence and statements in the file in order to piece together their own narrative of what happened,” she said.
“This is a really demanding task, and it is the first time I have ever tried it – usually, in mock trials, the kids just get given a statement of what really happened. But here, that was their task to figure it out based on their own analysis, so this was far more challenging, and it was amazing what an excellent job they did.”
Practicing lawyer Michael Hansen was also involved in the project, agreeing to serve as the judge for the proceedings.
Ivanko said it was something special to be able to use community resources to provide a unique opportunity for the students that was also firmly grounded in actual events.
Ivanko wanted to bring the literary experience into the real world to some degree and said she would absolutely do this kind of project with a class again.
“I think they learned that the themes in the book still connect to today – they’re not just confined to one era,” she said. “There’s still injustice and prejudice in the legal system, and this just takes the themes of the book into the real world.”