Tuesday, January 3, 2012

The Epic Mock Trial of Mark Twain #EngChat #EdChat

Mark Twain is one of my favorite authors. I hated him in high school, but grew to admire him in college. As a satirist, few can compare to him. I love teaching Huck Finn, but have found it harder and harder to teach the students the satire he used. Almost all of his references are to cultural ideas that are all but gone. One issue, still lingers today. It's this issue that I've decided to focus on for my Huck Finn unit.

Racism is still running strong in this country and Huck Finn is still in the middle of the firestorm. I'm sure I will be writing more about the use of the N-word and the value of its use in the context of this unit. I will also be using the newly published "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn: Robotic Edition" Edited by Gabriel Diani and Etta Devine with illustrations by E.W. Kemble and Denise Devine. This will be a great chance to talk about satire and how they chose to have fun with an American Classic. Here is a video with more details on the book. 

I hope to get in touch with these awesome people to possible talk with my students.

Anyway, on to the project.

After spending a few weeks reading and discussing the book, the students will be holding a mock trial for Mark Twain. Mr. Twain has been charged with the crime of Racism. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is has been deemed a book that is racist and inappropriate for society. Here is how I break down the project.

6 Lawyers - 3 lawyers each for the prosecution and defense team.
6 Witnesses - 3 for the prosecution and 3 (Including MT) for the defense.
1 Court Reporter .
The rest of the students act as the jury.
(I might add 2 more lawyers and two more witnesses depending on the class size.)

Students always want to know how I pick the parts for the trial. I use a few things in my decision making. I always look at grades. The Lawyers and Witnesses are parts that require self motivation. Those parts need to be given to students who can be trusted to get the work done in the time given. Extroverts are a must. I need students that also like to be on stage. I might have an "A+" student, but if they are quiet and shy, making them Mark Twain would be bad for everyone. Personality is a major factor in filling out the parts. Lastly, teacher instinct is huge. I've been watching these kids for over 5 months. I've know who will play what part for a couple of months now. When in doubt, trust your gut.

Each Lawyer is responsible for the examination and cross examination of a Prosecution witness and a Defense witness.

The Witness part of the Trial can be a bit complicated. Twain wrote the book as if it was a real event. Huck, the narrator, specifically references Twain in the opening of the story. With this being the fact, I've taken to allow the characters to be witnesses in the trial. This allows for deep character analysis by students as they prepare for testimony and cross examination. The student that gets to be Twain has to be knowledgable of the text and his life.

Students get one week to prepare for their cases.

The Jury is usually involved in some creative writing work while they wait for the case to begin.

I give the prosecution and defense one day each to make their case and the third day is for deliberation.

I plan on UStreaming one of the trials when they air. They are currently scheduled for February 13 - 15.

In the past, students have had a blast with the project. They have done an amazing job with the witnesses and did some in depth research on the book and its history. I have had guilty and not-guilty verdicts. It's a project that really opens the eyes of the students and I think Twain would appreciate that.

I'll provide more information on the project as we get closer to the event.

This was my first major project 10 years ago as a student teacher and I have done it on and off since then. This project takes the right mix of students to accomplish. If you have questions on this project, stay tuns for updates or email me and I'll see what I can do to help.


  1. Holy smokes, jr high here just starting huck Finn - I will be bogarting your ideas and duplicating here. Way to go! Looking forward to ustream trial.

  2. What a fabulous idea!

    I'm wondering whether Mr. Clemens will testify in his own defense.

  3. Do you let the students choose their own witnesses or do you assign them? I love this idea and would like to get started next week.


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