As students returned from Spring Break, court was officially in session. The Westwood STEM/Flex space transformed into a mock trial courtroom for sixth graders in the Gifted & Talented program. Opening statements were prepped and ready to be presented. Each side’s lawyers presented their case, an active gallery and jury (of peers) heard their arguments and determined the winner in Goldilocks v. The Bears.
The space held many of the features of a real courtroom – a separate room for jury deliberation, bags of evidence, a real judge presiding in robes (parent and Honorable Judge, Karen Schommer), and even a gavel the bailiff used to command order in the courtroom. Students took roles as witnesses, members of the jury, prosecuting/defense attorneys, reporters and sketch artists. There were two trial sessions so students had a chance to participate in different roles.
This mock trial exercise was the first since 2015, which is the last time court was in session at Westwood.
“The intent is for students to learn multiple perspectives, healthy debate, ethical dilemmas, persistence, speaking with clarity, among many other skills through this experience,” says Amanda West, Gifted & Talented specialist at Westwood. “Working through these life competencies in a classroom setting helps them collaborate with each other and process how our society functions.”
Defense attorney Andie Quist worked from her iPad full of notes and lead-in questions for cross examination. Even the most prepared attorneys can experience speed bumps, like finding out her partner was absent from school that day.
“Despite all our preparation, moments during the trial did surprise me. At times it made me feel put on the spot to respond,” explains Andie. “For example, there was evidence presented in the storyline about Goldilocks’ involvement in extracurricular activities. I had to draw from my research and trust my response in the moment.”
After eight minutes of deliberation, the jury from the first session found Goldilocks not guilty on all three counts of destruction of property, breaking and entering, and trespassing. The second session returned a not guilty verdict as well, trying on counts of unlawful entry and destruction of property. It was a blow to first session prosecuting attorneys, Eli Schommer and Jacob Hayle.
“What we practiced the most was how to use our voice in opening statements in the courtroom. We recited out loud to each other,” says Eli.
“We also prepared our witnesses through multiple meetings,” adds Jacob.
Mock trial can often stir up a new level of engagement and passion in students that even their teachers could not have anticipated.
“I was impressed with how students presented and how questions were cross examined,” says Amanda. “At one point we even had kids that were researching Minnesota and out-of-state statutes to support their cases.”
Students also had the benefit of a real federal agent visiting class to explain how he leads investigations to help prepare prosecutions, especially working with defense attorneys. Judge Schommer helped the court proceedings run smoothly and in a realistic way, along with announcing the verdict with student forepersons. When court adjourned, students had the unique opportunity to ask questions and consult.
A resounding message from Eli and Jacob: “The job of prosecuting attorney is much harder than we thought it was.”
Innocent until proven guilty – justice prevails.