Several weeks ago I had the pleasure of observing a Social Studies 10 class engaged in a mock trial of Canadian historical figure, Louis Riel. The class spent several periods talking about Canadian history, specifically Louis Riel and his work with the Metis. The class also spent some time discussing the logistics of the legal system and how trials work. The teacher then decided to take a chance and engage the learners through the mock trial process. She assigned roles and gave some preparation time to begin research into Louis Riel's trial for treason.
Class members took on roles including bayliff, judge, jury members, Louis Riel himself and a host of witnesses who were called to the stand by the Crown counsel and the Defense. The exercise was exciting and engaging for all students, and the innovative teaching contributed to learning in an educational setting that was incredibly rich, and much deeper than traditional stand and deliver lessons.
Here to write about the process, what was learned, how engaged the class was and the overall experience of the assignment are three students from the class, Saheli Sodhi, Ellia Zhong and Pearl Xu.
Below is a video representation of the trial, put together by a some students in the class who made it into a news reel. Well done, Sam Chow, Jason Quan and Bernard Ng.As illustrious as many events throughout history are, Canadian history has a tendency of being a tad dry. The majority of students would prefer to study the rich history of the United States or the passionate plight of the French during their famous revolution. Despite how amazing this country is now, the path its people took to get to where Canada is today was not particularly glorious. It is certainly beneficial to be aware of the roots of one's country; however, if the teaching style is not conducive to learning, the information may go in one ear and out the other. This lack of absorption can be remedied by using a variety of sources to learn. A perfect example of a creative learning medium is through the use of a mock trial, such as the trial of Louis Riel.By utilising a mock trial environment, students cover the materials in the textbook, indirectly. It is almost learning without being entirely conscious of their learning. It allows students the chance to learn the trial process while covering all of the necessary information, not to mention that it provides a competitive atmosphere to foster both teamwork and a desire to win.By the time that we had reached our Social Studies 10 unit on Louis Riel and his conflict with the government, our class had already poured through quite a few chapters of relevant, but in all honesty — from a student’s point of view — monotonous information. That was when Ms. Meralli, our Socials teacher, decided to incorporate the mock trial method of learning. By giving us this variation of learning style, she not only rejuvenated our interest, but also allowed for an understanding of that epoch in history on a deeper level.In the mock trial, every student took on the role of a true historical figure and we learned the history of the character, their part in the fight of the Metis, their values, and their environment in a very personal way. Everybody seemed to really connect to their character and to a world more than a century in the past. It seemed humorous in retrospect when we got a chance to look at how heated the mock trial had become and how intensely the points were delivered on both sides. That, however, as most of the participants would agree, was the success of this project. Everybody took something away from the mock trial, and key ideas that might have been overlooked in a detached volume of text really shone through during the trial to become a memorable addition to our understanding of Canadian history.Day One in the library, where the trial was held, tensions were high. The student-comprised jury sat to the right and the honourable Judge sat straight ahead with the authoritative Court Clerk positioned beside him. Everything began with the powerful opening statements delivered by confident lawyers from both the Defence and Crown counsel. All of the witnesses were carefully questioned by their own lawyers, trying to block off every loophole and tear away any suspicions, but the opposing lawyers never failed to spot the smallest of errors and bring uncertainty back to the table.Actively engaging in the trial, the Crown and Defence council took every chance they had to object, sometimes even to their own testimony, and the audience watched nervously with sweaty palms waiting for the opposition to rebut. The witnesses took to the stand fearlessly, dressed in their most creative clothing, representing their historical characters. There were generals in military uniforms, women with feather headbands and a few men with false beards and moustaches.Day two began in medias res — the last three witnesses were called and the lawyers delivered their closing statements which offered a little bit of everything, appealing to everyone’s appetite. There was emotion, logic, fact, and convincing delivery. The jury was sent away with a very tough decision on their hands. The fate of one man was on their shoulders.In the end, the Defence won more votes of the jury. When members of the jury were interviewed post-trial, both the people in favour of the Crown and against it produced very strong arguments defending their opinions.The trial was intensely fought and fairly decided, yet the verdict was irrelevant in light of what we learned. By the end of the trial, we all had assimilated more information than we thought possible, simply because Ms. Meralli left the track of the traditional curriculum to pursue a course of action that was both engaging and informative. The mock trial of Louis Riel was an invaluable learning experience and the information will stick with us for many years to come.