Mock Trials Enliven Social Studies and ELA

Judging For Themselves: Using Mock Trials to Bring Social Studies and English to Life
By David Sherrin
(Routledge/Eye On Education, 2016 – Learn more)

Reviewed by Joanne Bell

Students love to question and argue, especially about rules, fairness and justice. So why not capitalize on this tendency of middle school students and hold mock trials and debates. If you have wanted to try these activities or even thought about them, Judging For Themselves will really help.

David Sherrin has developed many procedures that will aid us in our own “trials” and errors. He gives us a how-to guide that is very useful and thorough. He begins by stating that besides being an engaging activity, mock trials provide an “authentic project in which students create and then do something real. The projects serve as both learning and assessment tools.” (xiv)

The first chapters relate to creating and executing mock trials. The process starts with choosing a story. The author’s suggestion to pick a story that correlates to your content makes sense and helps give the students background knowledge so they have more comprehension of the subject.

Next, he goes on to selecting a defendant and choosing witnesses, organizing the logistics, creating affidavits and exhibits, and assigning students. He gives examples of prep templates that he uses like, a Cross-Examination Preparation Sheet and a Jury/Judge Notetaking Sheet among others.

The second chapter deals with executing the trial. For this section, he gives a day-by-day summary of what should be accomplished. For instance, Day 1 is about generating interest and motivation for the subject. This is followed by details of the case, different roles in the trial and handing out evidence sheets. Day 2 is for close reading to identify key facts. Days 3,4 and 5 are for questions and final prep. He even covers the day of the trial by giving us the order of proceedings and key tips for success.

Parts 2 and 3 of the book deal with specific examples of trials to use in Social Studies and ELA classrooms. Examples are:

A Nuremberg Trial
Galileo and Martin Luther Inquisition Trial
To Kill a Mockingbird Trial
Imaginary Literary Trials (The Pearl)

In looking at the documents provided, particularly the trials of Galileo and Martin Luther, middle schoolers might need additional help to utilize them if they are not used to working with primary sources. But here again Sherrin gives more support for us. His idea for having more than one Galileo eliminates the burden of shouldering all of the information on one child. He also divides up the documents for the Galileo students 1-5. In the directions he conveys that the prosecuting lawyers should look for evidence in their documents that would show that Galileo was either guilty or innocent of heresy.

I think that this book would be a great fit for any classroom that is project based or that uses a lot of primary sources.

Joanne Bell is a middle school teacher at St. Joseph Elementary School in Cottleville, Missouri. She currently teaches social studies to sixth and seventh graders, but has spent most of her 34 years in the elementary grades.

Read David Sherrin’s take on mock trials here.



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