The Evolution of an Authentic Activity

The Evolution of an Authentic Activity

Being a teacher can be stressful and time-consuming!  When I was in the classroom teaching 4th-graders through 12th-graders, I wanted to make every lesson important and effective. Doing something new was important to me because I bored easily, and my students did, too.  I was not the type of teacher who could use the same lesson year after year or even period to period.  

Analysis and reflection are important parts of being an effective teacher.  Sometimes our lessons are a huge success; other times, our lessons fall short or are complete failures in our eyes. As I completed lessons, I would reflect on what worked and what could be improved, and I applied what I learned as soon as possible.

Why do teachers put so much pressure on themselves to have the perfect lesson on the first go round?  The following shows the growth of an activity that was good in its first iteration and grew and improved with each iteration into an amazing, powerful, authentic activity.  If you want to grow with the lesson, read on.  If you are really only interested in the final project, jump to the third take.  Either way, be confident that your lessons can grow and improve with each iteration.  As you read along, pay close attention to how real-world involvement and application grow with each iteration.

Authentic Activity: Take 1 

Setting the Scene

The teacher is Ms. Heyward.  The class is English 4: British Literature, and students are mostly seniors with a few juniors sprinkled in. Paradise Lost by John Milton is the literary work of study.  Students will participate in a mock trial to put the characters of Paradise Lost on trial. Students choose which group they want to belong to: 1) characters/actors in the live trial, 2) defense team, 3) prosecution team, and 4) news media.  Each group is responsible for knowing his/her role whether it be developing a character from the story or becoming a lawyer or media blogger.  

The judge listens as the prosecution questions the witness, God.

The judge listens as the prosecution questions the witness, God.

This authentic activity includes the trial of Eve for the fall of man.

Eve is sworn in before being questioned regarding her involvement in the fall of man.

Increasing Collaboration

The concept of a legal team was daunting because only one or two lead lawyers were needed.  To include all members, each team developed a research team responsible for digging into the text and researching things on the spot.  The presence of iPads made using a back channel as a collaboration tool possible; the back channel used was Today’s Meet.  The research teams used it to feed questions and information from the story to their team’s lead lawyers to support the questioning and cross-examination of witnesses.  Everything occurred in real time, on the spot.  You either were prepared or you were not.  There were no re-dos.

This authentic activity revolves around the trial of Satan and his involvement in the fall of man.

Satan is cross-examined by an attorney.

This authentic activity involves defense and prosecuting attorneys in a mock trial.

An attorney for the defense returns to his seat after questioning a witness.

To include more students in the process, there were three media teams tasked with reporting and blogging in the style of three major news outlets: NPR, CNN, and Fox.  Understanding political bias came into play with a review of powerful propaganda words.  A Google Original site was created for each class (see them here: period 1 and period 3) documenting the project.  

Student Engagement

In preparing for the mock trial, students knew they had a responsibility to their team.  The actors had to know their storyline, the legal teams had to know the characters’ stories inside and out, and the media teams had to cover the events in the room while writing in the style of their specific news outlet.  There was not a student in the class whose job did not matter.  Engagement was high, and students left the room talking about the experience.  The use of an authentic activity raised the level of engagement and understanding.

Authentic Activity: Take 2 

Activity Edits

A real judge presides over the authentic mock trial.

A real judge presides over the authentic mock trial.

Fast forward 2 more semesters.  Ms. Heyward saw an opportunity for growth and improvement. In an attempt to make the activity more authentic, she brought in real lawyers to train the students in actual trial proceedings and booked a journalist who recently covered a high-profile trial as a guest speaker to share her insights with the class.  Ms. Heyward also booked a real judge to oversee the trial and had 12 adult jurors from the community serve, deliberate, and assign a verdict.

There was much excitement as the trial date approached.  Students worked on their teams to prepare.  Witness statements were taken, pre-trial hearings were held to determine what will and will not be admissible in court.  Arguments were developed.  Media teams created their own mock news sites and started blogging.

The Big Day

For this authentic mock trial, a 12-person community jury is sworn in.

For this authentic mock trial, a 12-person community jury is sworn in.

The prosecution worked collaboratively to prove guilt.

The prosecution worked collaboratively to prove guilt.

Each attorney is trained in how to properly address a judge in court.

Each attorney is trained in how to properly address a judge in court.

This authentic activity has a bailiff to swear in each witness.

This authentic activity has a bailiff to swear in each witness.

Finally, the big day arrived.  The Media Center was reserved, increasing the feeling of authenticity.  A table at the front was reserved for the bailiff, judge, and witness box.  The jury sat to the right of the judge with the Defense and Prosecution teams sitting opposite the judge and the news outlet teams behind them.  It was very exciting.

Witnesses were sworn in, attorneys stood to address the judge and question witnesses, jury members sat stone-like listening to the proceedings as Eve, Satan, God, the Son of God, and even Sin were called to the stand, sworn in, questioned, and cross-examined. Finally, it was time for the jury to deliberate.

Jury Deliberation

The 12-person jury deliberated in a private room to decide the fates of Satan and Eve.

The 12-person jury deliberated in a private room to decide the fates of Satan and Eve.

As one of the jurors, I can tell you we had a tough time agreeing upon a verdict. Assumptions were made and called out, outside information was brought up and disregarded.  We had to focus only on what was said in the courtroom.  Information we wanted had not been sought by attorneys, so we did not have the information we needed to find both defendants guilty.  Upon returning to the courtroom, the jurors stated the verdict, and the judge took one guilty defendant into custody.  Before wrapping up, the jurors were asked to share their experiences deliberating over the fates of two people.  It was important that  the students see and hear the points that jurors disagreed over, questioned, and finally voted on.

Reflection

In debriefing after the activity, Ms. Heyward and I found the following strengths:

  1. Each student fully took ownership in his/her role.
  2. Students showed mastery of the themes of Paradise Lost.
  3. Students gleaned information about our justice system and the roles different people play within that system.
  4. Students collaborated well on teams working toward a common goal.
  5. Some students had increased creativity in developing the backstories for their characters
  6. Some defense and prosecution members increased their creativity as they built arguments to defend or prosecute characters.
  7. Students thought critically about the parameters of our justice system and tried to manipulate it in their favor whenever possible.

We also found the following weakness:

  1. Students were not able to think quickly on the spot.  Per the jury, the legal teams’ follow-up questions were weak or non-existent.
  2. Some of the characters did not develop their backstories on the stand leaving gaps in understanding for the jury

Upon reflecting, strengths and weaknesses were identified.  In general, the students clearly understood the text and its themes; however, their questioning skills were weak.  We surmised that perhaps the final project was too much all at once.  Perhaps the students needed more scaffolding along the way to prepare for the culminating project. Our new challenge: to find ways to incorporate similar types of activities throughout the entire curriculum.

Authentic Activity: Take 3 

Upon returning from winter break, Ms. Heyward was excited to share with me that she had revamped her entire curriculum to address the issues making “Trial” the theme of her course using British Literature as the content covered.  Each unit provided a guest speaker including lawyers from a local college and court reporters from the local CBS news station.

New Curriculum

  1. Unit 1: Composing an Opening Argument
    • Content: Pursuit of Happiness
    • Students will present themselves to the class in the format of an opening argument
  2. Unit 2: Innocent Until Proven Guilty
    • Content: Canterbury Tales
    • Witness statement
    • Gathering evidence
    • Creation of Google websites with character analyses
    • Regular blogging as a character
  3. Unit 3: The Art of Argument – Building a Case
    • Content: war protests and speeches
    • Voices of Protest
    • Silent discussion on War
    • Socratic Seminar on women’s rights
    • Today’s Meet backchannel analysis of Edwin Starr’s song War
    • Student analysis of song of their choice
  4. Unit 4: Hearings and Motions – Pretrial Hearings and Motions
    • Content: Hamlet
    • Refining witness statements
    • Witness prep
    • Deconstructing trials in teams
    • Pre-trial hearing
  5. Unit 5: Closing Arguments
    • Content: Beowulf
    • Argument of Good vs. Evil
    • How to make a strong appeal – rhetorical triangle
    • Final product: individual paper
  6. Unit 6: Do We Have a Verdict?
    • Content: Paradise Lost
    • Full trial proceedings including all skills in units 1-5.

Culmination

The next class to experience the trial will have completed each step once in advance and will be compiling and returning to all of the lessons learned throughout the course: opening arguments, creating witness statements, collecting and analyzing evidence, building a defense, interviewing witnesses, creating follow-up questions, making objections, and addressing the judge.  

I’ll be back to share the details of the big trial.

Ms. Heyward and I have already decided for the next iteration we need to transport the students to a real hearing room in the county. We’re not sure we can pull that off, but as my mother always says, “Nothing ventured, nothing gained.”

Just remember you, too, can develop a lesson like this.  

Don’t expect to do it all on the first try.  Give yourself time and room to grow with the activity.  If you take on too much too early you might be more likely to fail or get burned out.  

Good luck, and please share your ideas, comments, successes and failures here with the rest of us.

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