A trial is taking place in the spring of 1814. The citizens of France allege that Napoleon Bonaparte violated the ideals of the French Revolution. Specifically, the citizens blame Napoleon for restricting and eliminating the rights of the people of France as outlined in The Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, that Napoleon interfered with or denied the equality of all French citizens, and that Napoleon restricted and eliminated the representative government that was in place when he became First Consul of France in November of 1799.
Fast forward to 2021, where MICDS 8th grade students are re-enacting this trial as part of their mock trial unit in World History I. Middle School History Teachers Chris Militello and Will Shockley set the stage, and along with research skill assistance from Middle School Librarian Annie Tsai Gomez, the students jumped in to learn first-hand the different roles and perspectives in a trial. Serving as witnesses, defense attorneys, and prosecution attorneys, they assembled their teams and got to work.
The instructions for those in the role of witnesses are not unlike acting; they must temporarily become someone else. Is the character intelligent, nervous, likable, snobbish? Whatever the personality, it must be portrayed believably on the witness stand. Students researched the different witness assignments, then worked with their teams to create the questions that would be emphasized on the stand, all with the intent to win. Additionally, they had to predict the cross-examination questions and develop the appropriate answers without causing damage to their team’s case.
The attorneys utilized similar preparation techniques and carefully crafted lines of questioning for direct and cross-examination. The questions needed to be thorough enough for the jury to follow the story as if they are hearing it for the first time. The direct examination also includes the tactic of laying a foundation with simple questions and gradually building into more specific and important questions to establish the witness as believable. The stakes are higher on cross-examination as the witnesses respond to the opposing side’s questions which can be less predictable and lead to holes in the witness testimony.
Good communication with teammates is essential for success, and students had to be aware of everything they were saying or doing in court as it must contribute to the team effort of winning the case.
Shockley shared, “The goal of Middle School mock trial is to have our students develop and improve their organizational, research, and presentation skills. While it is not designed as preparation for the Upper School Mock Trial Team, several of our students have gone on to join the team.”
Militello added, «It’s no secret that 8th grade students love to argue. This mock trial allows the students to showcase their time-tested argumentation skills in a productive, fun way.»
Students reflected on the process as well:
«A mock trial is a new, unique project that not many students have experienced before. Instead of a presentation, essay, or test, a mock trial is a fun new way to engage students in our world history. It combines many different elements into one project–history, drama, debate, and many more factors into one. The mock trial is a great way to try something new.» – G.T. Cozad ’25
«Working on the mock trial has been a fun experience. We get to use our knowledge about the French and Haitian Revolutions to prove to the class whether Napoleon should be convicted or acquitted. It is way more interesting than writing a paper. It has allowed us to work with our peers to create something great together. When the mock trial does take place, we will have lots of fun playing the roles of important historical figures.» – Sanjana Gandhi ’25
«The mock trial is a wonderful experience that I am absolutely loving! Everyone has worked hard on their defense, prosecution, or testimony and I cannot wait to see how all the pieces fall into place. The trial has truly ignited a competitive spark in the hearts of the class, making them all strive to win. I am so lucky to attend such an amazing school that gives us such amazing opportunities.» – Cass Goldring ’25
«Being in the 8th grade mock trial has brought out the lawyers and actors inside of all of us. We are discovering through our unit how important it is to have trials and are focusing on the main idea of a defendant being innocent until proven guilty. As the lead attorney of the prosecution team though, I know that my team will dig deep into our topics to prove them guilty—we’re coming for you, Napoleon.» – Alyssa Harris ’25
«The mock trial unit is a very interactive and hands-on way of learning about the trial process. This makes the subject not only more fun but also easier for my classmates and me to learn.» – Grant LaMartina ’25
«I am grateful for this opportunity to learn about historical trials because it has allowed me to see the impact they have today. Learning about these historical events allowed me to have a deeper understanding of how the government system works and has worked in the past. We have learned about how each part of a trial is important, and how the final decisions are made. This activity was very informative, and the mock trial has been so much fun!» – Carli Salazar ’25
«This in-depth trial was a great way for me to not only learn how a real trial works but to also learn more about French history.» – Hannah VanValkenburg ’25
Hear ye, hear ye, and a big thank you to Mr. Militello and Mr. Shockley for engaging our students in this essential judicial process!