Why you should use mock trials in your ELA classroom

Whenever I reflect on my teaching practices and search for new, creative ideas that will engage and empower my students, I come back to one of my all-time favorite lessons: mock trials. I always find myself thinking, “I want more lessons like that!” This lesson is the perfect representation of my teaching philosophy, the definition of genuine engagement, and one of my favorite ways to “trick” my students into learning. Speaking of tricks and treats, a mock trial with one of Poe’s short stories is the perfect way to celebrate spooky season without sacrificing curriculum. (For more Halloween ideas, check out this post.)

It doesn’t get much better than a mock trial, so while I search for ways to top this game-changing lesson, here are 10 reasons why you need to try out a mock trial in your ELA classroom tomorrow (or as soon as you can).

1. Mock trials are ENGAGING.

A mock trial is the definition of my philosophy of teaching and engagement: It’s intrinsically motivating, and it’s challenging. This activity is not fluff or edu-tainment, but rather, good, old-fashioned hard work, disguised as something more appealing, thanks to the mock trial structure. A mock trial is the kind of lesson that motivates students and cultivates ownership in the learning process. It also happens to be the kind of lesson that gets you really excited to wake up in the morning and teach (because teachers deserve fun, too)!

2. Mock trials are RELEVANT.

A mock trial is an authentic way to assess real-world writing skills.

Sure, you could have your students write a 5-paragraph essay over the same question that frames your mock trial, but why not make it more relevant and realistic? I’ll be the first to admit that my mock trials are not legally perfect by any means, but they’re a great introduction to the world of criminal justice and argumentation. I’ve even had students who considered law or criminal justice as potential career fields after participating in one of our mock trials.

3. Mock trials are STUDENT-CENTERED.

I’m a firm believer in doing less so the students can do more, and a mock trial is the perfect example of student-centered learning at its best. With a mock trial, the students are doing all of the work. They’re running the show, and you’re just there to coach them on the sidelines. When I facilitate a mock trial, I essentially use writing workshop, so I am able to confer with groups and students to offer feedback throughout the process.

4. You can use a mock trial to practice almost ANY ELA SKILL.

Seriously, I’m convinced that you can practice just about any ELA standard with a mock trial: citing strong and relevant textual evidence, literary analysis, speaking and listening, persuasion/argumentation/debate, the impact of word choice, and more! My first-ever mock trial was an attempt to force my students into realizing the relevance of citing textual evidence, not just in their parenthetical citations after reading a novel, but in real life. Being in front of a jury of their peers and wanting to “win” the trial made them actually want to annotate the text and select the strongest evidence.

Mock trial jury
I have the jury sit along the back wall to evaluate the arguments during the trial.

5. Mock trials make SCAFFOLDING easy.

Speaking of all of those applicable standards, a mock trial offers a great chance to scaffold those skills. This is exactly how I’ve always used mock trials: before an argumentative writing unit, so that students have a chance to build their skills as writers in a low-risk, supported, and scaffolded setting. During our mock trial workshop, I provide lots of guidance because investing in the prep time really pays off.

6. Mock trials work for almost ANY TEXT.

Does your text have a crime? A death? An ethical dilemma? Just about everything we read in American lit does! I’ve always used mock trials for Poe’s “The Black Cat” with my juniors in English 11. If you have a younger age group and you’re looking to stick with Poe, I highly recommend using “The Tell-Tale Heart.” I’ve also facilitated mock trials for landmark student expression cases in my journalism classes. I’ve heard from dozens of teachers who have used my mock trial resources for various works of literature and topics, including “The Crucible,” The Great Gatsby, the “Serial” podcast, The Outsiders, Frankenstein, and more.

7. Mock trials offer the perfect balance of COLLABORATION & INDIVIDUAL ACCOUNTABILITY.

Mock trials balance individual accountability with collaboration.

When I facilitate a mock trial, it’s essentially a group essay, and each student is responsible for one section. The teams (defense and prosecution) must develop a strategy as a team, but then each individual must complete their own task. I grade the students’ individual responses, but the jury “grades” the arguments. Students don’t want to let their team down, and they want to persuade the jury, so they are typically much more motivated during a mock trial.

8. Mock trials make it easy to INTEGRATE TECHNOLOGY.

When I facilitate a mock trial, Google Classroom and Google docs are my best friends. Students complete all of their work on collaborative Google docs so I can track everyone’s progress, efficiently provide feedback, and use hyperdocs to support students’ needs. (For all things hyperdocs, check out this blog post.)

9. Mock trials help you get your grading done IN CLASS! A dream!

Ssssh, this may be my number one reason for being so obsessed with mock trials…I just had to hide it at the bottom so you all wouldn’t think I’m lazy! I’m only half-joking. But seriously, if you’re an ELA teacher, you already have too much to grade, so why not do an activity that you can assess in class? During our mock trials, I make sure I have all of my rubrics printed, labeled, and ordered before class so that grading students during their speeches is a breeze. Plus, I’ve already given students so much feedback during the mock trial workshop that my final assessment is efficient and painless.

10. Need one more reason? It’s a great excuse to wear a judge GOWN and wield a GAVEL all day long.

Judge G
I have too much fun during mock trials!

In other words: You can get paid to be weird and have fun. And that’s the dream, isn’t it? Maybe Judge G loves her gown and gavel more than the average teacher, but seriously…don’t knock it until you try it. During my first trial, I found my old graduation gown and borrowed a gavel from another teacher. I have since upgraded to my own Amazon Prime gavel, and maybe one day I will splurge on the engraved gavel!

If you love the idea of a mock trial, but need help structuring and facilitating it, you can check out my full video tutorial in Season 1 of our virtual Keeping the Wonder Workshop. Membership includes access to my Mock Trial for ANY Text bundle (and $75 worth of other resources). If you want only the bundle of instructions, templates, resources, rubrics, and more, then you can grab that here.

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