Civil Law can be a complex and important topic, and you might not expect it to be of great interest for 10 year old children. Why then, are grade five students having so much fun learning about defamation law, civil trial procedure and roles in the justice system?
The answer is OJEN’s Grade 5 Civil Mock Trial program, “Hansel and Gretel v. Wendy Witch”. This multi-module program introduces elementary school children to defamation, the limits to freedom of expression and civil trial procedure. The culminating activity for the program is a mock defamation trial, in which Wendy Witch claims damages against Hansel and Gretel for a blog post they published portraying her as a child eater. The grade 5 classroom is transformed into a courtroom, with the students playing all the roles in the scenario: lawyers, witnesses, jurors, court clerk, court security officer, reporters and court artists. The part of the judge is played by a lawyer volunteer.
“It’s a fantastic program,” says Lara Donsky, a K-12 Learning Coach with the Toronto District School Board (TDSB). Her class piloted the program when it was first introduced in 2008. Since then, she has used it several times, including most recently, in two schools in Toronto’s east end which host diverse newcomer populations.
According to Lara, the program offers many connections to the Ontario Grade 5 Curriculum, particularly in Social Studies and Language Arts. Equally important, it is a unique way for students to build on individual strengths and promote self-confidence.
When viewed through the lens of equity and inclusion, Lara says, the mock trial activity gives every student an opportunity to shine.
The wide variety of roles available within the activity allows students with different strengths and abilities to contribute meaningfully. There are speaking and non-speaking parts: roles that utilize artistic or writing skills, as well as opportunities to develop critical-thinking and public-speaking skills.
In both schools where the program ran in the first term last year, students self-selected their roles in the mock trial. She recommends this to other teachers considering the activity.
“Students know where their strengths are,” Lara says. “They can decide what they are comfortable doing, and how they want to participate.”
She has many stories of how students have shaped their roles to make them uniquely their own; how they have challenged themselves to go beyond their comfort zones, surprising themselves and their teachers in the process.
“One great thing about the mock trial, is that watching it, you can’t tell who is the ‘straight A’ student and who spends most of their time in the office for behaviour issues. What you see are students striving,” says Lara. “For children with special needs, they can demonstrate that they are not their disability. They can participate with others in a positive way”.
“From the educator’s point of view, it is a very powerful experience. They sit back and watch as their students shine, and they know that they’re shining. I know it absolutely makes a difference in these kids’ lives!”
Lara plans to run the Elementary Civil Mock Trial program with another Grade 5 class in the spring of this year and hopes more teachers will incorporate it into their classroom activities. Although it requires committing a significant amount of classroom time – it runs once a week for about 6 weeks, with the mock trial as the culminating activity – the benefits are well worth the effort.
Elementary school teachers interested in exploring OJEN’s Grade 5 Civil Mock Trial program, “Hansel and Gretel v. Wendy Witch”, can contact Nat Paul (firstname.lastname@example.org), Director of Educator Support, for a copy of the materials. The package includes a step-by-step guide for teachers to run the program in their classrooms and suggestions for extension activities. Depending on availability, OJEN may also be able to arrange for a civil lawyer to assist in the mock trial preparation and demonstration.