MICDS ninth-grade students recently took an experiential journey into Latin American history thanks to Upper School History Teachers Jason Asher, Changa Bey, Andy Cox, Cathy Leitch, Alex Rolnick, and Tanya Roth. They launched a mock trial inspired by the 1986 case of The Republic of Nicaragua v. The United States of America so that students could study Latin American history, collaborate in work sessions to select their roles (lawyers and witnesses), and develop statements and questions for the day of trial.
Rolnick said, “As I was thinking about this Latin American unit and the chapters we were having students read, I wondered to myself what the throughline was, and the obvious one was the role of the U.S. I’d also just read the rerelease of the classic Empire’s Workshop: Latin America, the United States, and the Making of an Imperial Republic by Greg Grandin, which takes on the subject in great depth.
Many students have reflected positively on the Napoleon mock trial they did in 8th grade, so I thought it would be worth seeing if we could develop a region-wide mock trial having students represent different historical actors.”
The students embarked upon the following assignment:
The United States has been accused by the International Court of Justice (ICJ) of destabilizing countries in Latin America by acting as an imperial power through the use of military interventions and economic influence. Traditionally, the ICJ hears cases between states. In one significant case in Latin America, Nicaragua v. the United States, it ruled that the United States had violated international law through intervention in Nicaragua. In this case, the United States refused to participate in the proceedings and later blocked the UN Security Council from enforcing the ruling which would have compensated Nicaragua for the intervention.
We are adapting the ICJ to participate in a mock trial activity. This activity will help you to understand the arguments for and against the involvement of the United States, the variety of ways American influence has helped and hurt states and people across Central and South America, and to come to a conclusion for yourself about the United States’ role in the region.
You will be representing either the United States’ defense team, the coalition of lawyers working to prosecute the case against the United States, or you will represent witnesses (leaders) from a specific state or group who worked on behalf of or against American interests. If you are representing witnesses, when you are not giving the testimony you will be serving as a judge on the ICJ, and at the end of the trial, you will be responsible for voting and justifying a decision with all of the other judges. The trial’s central question will be: Were the United States’ interventions in Latin America legitimate and justifiable?
The main goal was to have students critically consider the United States’ actions in the region as the U.S. continues to exert significant influence throughout Central and South America. One of the larger points Rolnick made before the trial (from Grandin’s book) was that there’s largely been a bipartisan consensus about the United States’ role in promoting stability in the region and potentially doing “more harm than good” was an important consideration. “Most students ultimately seemed persuaded by their peers who represented the case against the legitimacy of US involvement,” he added.
Ninth-graders reflected on the experience with enthusiasm:
“The mock trial in history class was a great experience! I played the role of the late Guatemalan president Jacobo Árbenz Guzmán. We reviewed America’s involvement and international relationships with Latin America, and multiple classmates acted as representatives and witnesses. Overall the experience greatly improved our knowledge of Latin America and its history.” – Jacob Daus ’25
“As the defense for the United States, I believed that it would be difficult since I, too, didn’t agree the U.S. was justified. Although I started my project anxiously, I absorbed information about Latin America. I dove into people’s lives against and for the U.S. while also finding ways to prove the U.S. was justified. During the trial, I interrogated the witnesses while also having fun. This mock trial really gave me a bigger picture of Latin America.” – Anika Mulkanoor ’25
“I always enjoy interactive activities in history class. They allow me to learn better and more in-depth, as well as make a connection to the material. The mock trial is a great example of this because it helped me connect events to a bigger picture and learn how to argue a claim, even if I didn’t believe it. Those types of activities are always interesting, and I had fun doing it!” – Kate Hunter ’25
“During our mock trial, I was a lawyer on the defense side, so I had to gain a pretty clear knowledge of the case. I learned how to find loopholes so that during cross-examination, I got the prosecution in a tricky spot (which was pretty fun, I must say). As a class, we all had to collaborate one way or another—whether it was putting together strategic questions with our witnesses or the judges coming together to make a final decision. It was a lot of hard work, but it was rewarding to see the passion the trial brought out in each student! And, believe it or not, I think it brought us all a little closer. My favorite part, in fact, was at the end of the trial when Claire (who was previously against me on the prosecution side) came up to me and hugged me. She said, “Sorry, mock trials make me a little intense.” Some say intense, and others say passionate; regardless, I have never seen our class put more care and work into a project. And it paid off!” – Sophia Goodwin ’25
“I think I can speak on behalf of my whole class to say that this was our favorite activity. Everyone was very enthusiastic about their roles. To be able to play them well, we all needed to put in the extra effort through our research, but everyone was very eager and willing. I’m sure that we learned more than if we had just completed the lesson without a simulation. It was really great during the trial itself when we saw the culmination of our work mixed with our eagerness to play the roles well, whether you were a witness or a lawyer. At the end of the trial, our greater understanding of American intervention in South America allowed us to have some great conversations, as the class was divided 3-7 in favor of the prosecution. Overall, we had a lot of fun!” – Hale Foster ’25
The teaching team as a whole was impressed by the students’ ability to absorb information and challenge themselves to hold multiple perspectives. Rolnick remarked on a more gratifying aspect of the exercise, “My favorite part of the unit was hearing students from my class and others talking with excitement about the trial/s in the hallways and seeing how invested many of the students were in their roles.”
Upper School History Teacher Cathy Leitch shares in the enthusiasm and applauds the students’ efforts, “The mock trial was the fourth simulation students have done this year. Whether a witness or an advocate, students had to determine what information was most relevant to the argument or perspective they sought to present to the court. It was nice to see their progress since August in evaluating the credibility of sources and organizing their research.”
Thank you to the talented MICDS history faculty for leading ninth-grade students through this hands-on journey through historical events and putting their critical thinking skills to the test!