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Mock Trial-- great extra-curricular learning experience for homeschoolers!
Elliot Taylor, 3/26/2010

Elliot Taylor is an 11th grade homeschooler in my AP US History online class-- and I was delighted to learn that he was also involved in a Mock Trial team with area homeschoolers. And even more delighted when he gladly offered to write up an article about his experiences in this program that helps young people learn about the world of trial lawyers and courts and the legal system. I know at least one homeschooler in Pennsylvania who is now heading into law school-- and his interest in this field was sparked by his involvement in Mock Trial during his high school years at home. For full info on this program, and to learn about the details of signing up in your state, check out this site: www.nationalmocktrial.org There is also a college-level program: http://www.collegemocktrial.org Mock Trial is but one example of the many excellent programs open to high school students where homeschool teams are very welcome-- we'll be covering more of these types of program in future articles. And as Elliot points out so well, this is a terrific way for our teens to both learn about a fascinating aspect of the real world and to really get to know a group of friends very well from working cooperatively together throughout the year to get prepared for the competitions.

As a homeschooled student, I spend much of my time completing school assignments or studying. Not much time can be devoted to extra activities or to friends. However, for the past three years, I have participated in an activity called Mock Trial. While it falls under an extra curricular activity, it is a very educational experience that I enjoy immensely.

For those that don't know, Mock Trial is an activity in which the participating teams compete in a fictional court case. Every year around September, the New Jersey State Bar Foundation sends out the case that the teams will be using. This case will contain the facts of the story and the statements of the six indiviual witnesses who will show up in court to be questioned. The case is split into two sides, the Prosecution and the Defense. Each side must have three witnesses and two attorneys. By the following February, the teams gather at a court house in their respective counties and perform in “mock” trials. Judges presiding over the cases are attorneys, and the teams that make it to the final round in the county will be judged by real judges. Teams that win the county competitions will proceed to Regionals; the final two teams will compete against each other in the State Championship.

My Mock Trial team usually consists of sixteen members with eight on each of the sides, prosecution and the defense. On each of those sides there are two attorneys and three pairs of witnesses. On competition day, the attorney pair on either side will perform together, while one from each of the witness pairs will also perform. Further into the competition, the witnesses will swap between Defense and Prosecution, but the attorneys will continue to go with their original side.

As a third year witness on my Mock Trial team, I have seen many trials and performed in a few myself. When the case booklet is first released in September, statements for each individual witness are contained inside of it. The statements contain the back-story of that individual, and pieces of the story and how this person relates to the case at hand. More often than not, the statements also contain a generous amount of unhelpful or even bad information that can negatively impact your “sides” case. Also, the witness's personality may not always be the most favorable to the side in which it is assigned. For example, last year I acted as a “disgruntled” employee who is testifying in court against his Boss. Just this year, I was a money crazed baby-sitter who has more evidence to suspect him as the kidnapper in the case then the actual Defendant did. While they had a lot going against them, those witnesses were fun to perform in their own ways. Some of the information in the statements could be used against my witness, but there are a lot of “unknowns” that I am able to “make-up,” provided it doesn't conflict with the rest of the case.

As a witness, preparation for competitions includes studying the witness statement for problems that must be negated. Also, as a witness, I must collaborate with my directing attorney on the information that we (as either the prosecution or defense) want to bring out in court. In many ways, it is almost as if I lived as a separate life during those months of preparation for the Trials. I would many times suddenly just starting answering questions to a phantom attorney. I would do it for practice, or to try out new ideas for answers. Other times I would just start rambling in my head something about my witness's background because I had a spark of thought.

During the competitions, each of the six witnesses go through two phases on the stand. The first is known as “Direct Examination.” This is where the witness is answering questions coming from the attorney on the witness's side. These questions are scripted beforehand and the witness has the answers memorized so that the all the points the team is trying to make gets out. Cross examination is the second phase which involves questions from the opposing attorney. This is the interesting part because the attorney will be trying to get me as the witness to say things that I don't want to say because it will hurt my team. It becomes a very intense battle, but that is probably why it is so much fun. Sitting up there and giving non-responsive answers while still maintaining a respectful attitude towards the questioner. There is nothing more pleasing then seeing a very frustrated questioning attorney after finishing a cross examination.

The other important thing that many less experienced teams forget about is the “drama” aspect. When the judges critique the teams performance to determine the winner, they watch the witness for not only what is being said, but also how it is being said. Two years ago, the case had a teen who died from over-dose of steroids with the parent being held responsible. Now common sense indicates that this parent would be grieving from this loss and accusation. Yet, in the competitions, our team encountered a parent (also, swim coach) who was not grieving, but was instead, chipper. This made for a ridiculously unbelievable witness. Not because she didn't say the right things, but because she did not sound sincere and honest in saying them.

It has been three years and I plan to return for my senior year. I've learned so much about my country's law system while getting a chance to get up and away from my desk for a change.


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