Should George Milton have shot Lennie Small? The 8th graders hotly debated this question in their English classrooms as part of a mock trial, the culminating event of their study of John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men. This trial, which took place over the course of several days, pitted prosecution attorneys arguing that central character George Milton acted immorally when he shot and killed his partner and fellow protagonist, Lennie Small, against defense attorneys who argued that he acted morally and correctly in doing so. Three judges in each section oversaw the trial – a bench trial, in which their verdicts decided George’s fate – and heard from students playing the roles of witnesses Slim, Candy and Crooks, characters who worked at the ranch alongside George and Lennie and knew them well.

The defense presents its case.

The defense presents its case.

Before the trial began, teams of lawyers worked together to brainstorm a list of possible arguments to support their side, select evidence to support those arguments and determine who would make opening and closing statements. They recognized the need to predict their opponents’ arguments and offer counter-arguments in their statements. They created drafts of their statements and offered feedback to one another, and they practiced delivering their statements with poise and gusto. The witnesses also created statements, though they faced the added challenge of attempting to determine what their character might argue and how to communicate that argument using their character’s voice. They discussed Steinbeck’s techniques for developing voice, brainstormed the evidence on both sides of the argument, then made their decision, guided by the text. Judges worked together to anticipate the arguments the prosecution and defense attorneys would make and then developed pointed questions to ask of both sides.

The trial loosely followed the format of a U.S. trial.

The trial loosely followed the format of a U.S. trial.

The trial loosely followed the format of United States’ trials and began with opening statements by the prosecution, followed by statements of those witnesses supporting the prosecution, opening statements by the defense and witness statements supporting the defense. There was then a period of cross-examination in which the judges asked their carefully prepared questions to each side. In order to answer the questions fully, teams used textual evidence to support their on-the-spot arguments. One rebuttal was allowed following each question, and attorneys on each side took turns responding. After this period of cross-examination, the prosecution and defense made closing statements that took into account the arguments presented that day.

Teams used textual evidence to support their on-the-spot arguments

Teams used textual evidence to support their on-the-spot arguments

With bated breath, the lawyers and witnesses awaited the judges’ verdicts on the following day. Judges read prepared verdicts in which they had considered not only the attorneys’ and witnesses’ statements but also the ability of the prosecution and defense to respond to their questions. In each section, the tension was palpable, and as the third judge read his or her statement, the classes erupted – there were cheers (though fortunately no tears) and congratulations all around for a job well done. For the duration of the trial the classroom was transformed into a true courtroom and students into judges, lawyers and witnesses. A man’s fate was at stake, and the students did not take that lightly!