Teaching Politics, Controversy, Engagement – #sschat 11/3/14

sschat-promoMy @EdMethods students and I [@edteck] are proud to be guest hosts for Twitter #sschat on Monday November 3, 2014 from 7-8 PM (eastern). That night is election eve ’14 and our topic will be very timely –  “Teaching Politics, Controversy and Civic Engagement.” Here’s our questions:

Q1: What are student attitudes about politics and government – engagement, distain or indifference?
Q2: How do you create a safe classroom climate to address hot-button political and social issues?
Q3: How should teachers deal with their personal opinions when teaching politics and controversial issues – teach, preach, abstain?
Q4: How can we help students be critical consumers of political news and opinion?
Q5: What resources / ideas can you recommend for teaching politics and fostering civic engagement?
Q6: (Channel your inner Nate Silver) Do you have a prediction to make about a hot 2014 election or ballot initiative?

My co-hosts are pre-service social studies teachers in the School of Education, University of Portland (Ore). We take social media seriously in EdMethods. It’s an essential element of the course. Our students include: 

Kari Vankommer  @MissKVK
Christy Thomas  @crthomas478
Emily Strocher  @emilystrocher
Andy Saxton  @MrAndySaxton
Erik Nelson @ENelsonEdu
Michelle Murphy  @michelleqmurphy
Kristi McKenzi  @tiannemckenzie
Sam Kimerling  @kimerlin171
Scott Deal  @SLDeal15
Jenna Bunnell  @jennamarie0927
Ceci Brunning  @csquared93

Romney vs. Obama Wordle Smackdown

Here’s a Wordle comparison of the top twenty words used in the each candidate’s speech to their conventions. Font size represents frequency that the word appeared in their speech as prepared for delivery. Seems to be “America” vs “new.”

Romney’s Speech to the Republican Convention NY Times
President Obama’s Prepared Remarks From the Democratic National Convention NY Times

Defending Fiction: The Literary Mock Trial of the Count of Monte Cristo

Dumas book
Dumas book

I recently blogged from the 2011 US Innovative Education Forum (IEF) sponsored by Microsoft Partners in Learning. Here’s a guest post from, Kelli Etheredge, one of the IEF finalists I met at the competition. For more on the competition and other guest posts click the IEF tag. ~ Peter

Kelli Etheredge, St. Paul’s Episcopal School (Mobile, AL)
Project: What’s the Verdict? The Count of Monte Cristo Murder Trial
In this project, 10th grade World Literature class students used a shared Microsoft OneNote notebook, Office Web Apps and Windows Live SkyDrive to share information and prepare for a criminal trial of the character Edmond Dantès after reading the novel The Count of Monte Cristo. Students develop many 21st century skills including critical thinking, creative problem solving, collaboration while they move beyond rote memorization and regurgitation of facts and read the book with a critical eye and goal in mind — to either prove or disprove the liability of Dantès in the downfall of his enemies and the seven deaths, two kidnappings and the loss of wealth. They gain experience in using the art of persuasion, writing in various formats and enhance civic literacy.

Kelli has written the following guest post. For a full description of the project, see her blog.

They are either reading the novel from the eye of a specific witness and discovering how Edmond Dantès impacted their lives, or they are reading from a lawyer’s perspective. They are solving the mystery, gathering evidence, looking for connections.

Intrigue. It is the key to any great story. For me, it’s also the key to any great literature lesson.
I teach World Literature to 10th graders. As with most literature curriculums, the focus is on the classics. 10th graders are generally not interested in classics. Not surprising, I know. If it wasn’t published in their lifetime, students frequently classify all classics as “boring” without every reading it. Even when they are interested in the work, nothing kills the inherent qualities of a story like the “traditional” qualities of a literature classroom. We all know the class – assign chapters to read for homework, lecture about plot and theme, repeat until done. My goal, therefore, for every unit is to bring classic literature to life. I love the day in my class when kids shift from saying, “I have to read this…” to “I get to read this!”

How do I create intrigue? For The Count of Monte Cristo unit, I use the mock trial. Now, don’t get me wrong. The Count of Monte Cristo oozes intrigue without a mock trial – love, jealousy, betrayal, vengeance. It has it all. But, with an 1844 publication date, some students may never read it without the mock trial. Therefore, when I introduce the unit, I tell the students that at the end of the novel, although Edmond Dantès never directly kills, kidnaps, or steals from anyone, we are going to put him on trial for murder, kidnapping, and theft. Intrigue. They are curious; they start reading to see how in the world such a trial can happen.

Students are then given a deadline for the first fifteen chapters and asked to tell me whether they want to be either (1) a lawyer or (2) a witness in the trial. Starting with chapter sixteen, students have a specific role. They are either reading the novel from the eye of a specific witness and discovering how Edmond Dantès impacted their lives, or they are reading from a lawyer’s perspective. They are solving the mystery, gathering evidence, looking for connections.

classroom mock trial
classroom mock trial

Students are given time in and out of class to read the novel. At specific chapters, the class analyzes the events in the novel and creates cause and effect charts. When the students are finished reading the novel, they then move into prosecution and defense teams to prepare for the trial. All of our work in the novel study and the trial preparation is shared via a Microsoft OneNote notebook. Prosecution and Defense teams have password protected sections. During the mock trial they can quickly search their OneNote notebook and find facts that help them respond to cross-examination remarks.

Witnesses play the part and write a letter from their character’s perspective; lawyers use an analysis chart to determine how each witness impacts their theory of the case. During the trial preparation stage, I teach the students about trial procedure, questioning witnesses, and introducing evidence at trial. When trial preparation is complete, we conduct the mock trial. Other teachers and former students sit on the jury. I’m the judge. When witnesses are not on the stand, they are taking notes to help prepare for their persuasive essay. The trial usually lasts four to five days, and we have had both defense and prosecution verdicts.

Once the trial is over, everyone writes a persuasive essay answering the question: Were the punishments of Danglars, Villefort, and Fernand Mondego really God’s retribution or wholly the cause of Edmond Dantès?

Count of Monte Cristo Preparation & Trial from Kelli Etheredge on Vimeo.

From start to finish, students are thinking critically, connecting their knowledge of the novel to their own world, and expanding their experiences. Watching each student use the facts of the case to (1) demonstrate their understanding of the novel and (2) prove their team’s case is one of the proudest moments I have every year.

Here are my tips for making a literary mock trial successful:

  • Choose a novel that involves culpable activities but no one in the novel is punished for
  • Assign only important roles (lawyers and characters) and assign the roles as early as you can
  • Provide students with scaffolding devices that help them in their critical thinking – cause/effect charts, organization tools, analysis charts
  • Make sure everyone is active during the trial; if students aren’t testifying they should be taking notes, preparing for their persuasive essay.
  • Use outside experts- lawyers from your hometown- to teach students about trial procedure
  • The following site has a mock trial manual (pdf) for teachers to use –  (note I did not assign follow this manual completely because I wanted my students to only be witnesses and lawyers. Positions like bailiff did not provide any opportunity for critical thinking and application of their knowledge of the novel.) Additionally, this website – provides guidance on questioning witnesses, introducing evidence, etc.
  • Encourage healthy competition – the students’ level of commitment to the project intensifies with a healthy competition.
  • Remind students that they are capable of the task; students need to know that they are capable of hard work and critical thinking, and they need to know you have confidence in their abilities.
  • Have fun!


Additional resources from Kelli:

About the Author
Kelli Etheredge is the Teaching and Learning Resources Director for St. Paul’s Episcopal School. In her role, she supports PK-12 teachers in effective integration of technology and innovative lesson design. She is also a trained peer coaching facilitator through the PeerEd group. Additionally, Kelli teaches World Literature at the 10th grade level. She is in her twelfth year of teaching and her eleventh year of teaching in a 1:1 environment. Before her teaching career, Kelli practiced law for five years.

Image credits:
Dumas Book – flickr/jypsygen
Classroom mock trial – Kelli Etheridge

The Battered Woman Defense: A Classroom Mock Trial

a little justice
a little justice

The highly-publicized trial and acquittal of Barbara Sheehan, brings the subject of spousal abuse and the battered-woman defense to the front page. Wife Who Fired 11 Shots is Acquitted of Murder (NY TImes October 7, 2011).

This case brings to mind a battered-woman defense mock trial that I developed and used for many years with my seniors at Pittsford Sutherland High School (Pittsford NY). I found that participation in mock trials enabled students to hone their critical thinking skills, collaboration, and explore significant legal and social issues in a real-world setting. Here is a copy of the fact pattern for this mock trial in pdf format – The Donna Osborn Case.

I found that many students who had previously been labeled “academically at-risk,” excelled in the fluid environment of a trial. “Honors students” sometimes struggled with material that cannot simply be memorized for a traditional test.

Mock trials are not “scripted” events. Well-written, they should offer a reasonable chance for either side to prevail. While I provided students with the witness statements, it was up to their legal teams to develop prosecution / defense theories and prepare to serve as witness or attorney in a trial held before an actual judge (or attorney) and a jury of adults from the community. 

Each class was a separate trial held over a series of 5-7 days. (My classroom trials became so popular, that adults routinely stopped me in the grocery store to ask if there was another jury they could serve on. … Yes, but it has to be a case you haven’t heard before.)

The course was a one-semester politics and law class that included students from across the academic spectrum. Over the years, I found that many students who had previously been labeled “academically at-risk,” excelled in the fluid environment of a trial. “Honors students” sometimes struggled with material that cannot simply be memorized for a traditional test. This was a lesson that shaped my belief in fostering engagement with a more a student-centered and project-based approach.

To prepare students for this “authentic” assessment, they were introduced to rules of evidence and were given chances to develop their legal skills in preliminary classroom-based trial activities. The community-based trial was the “final exam” for the course. While the students were evaluated by me with a teacher-based rubric – the real mark of success was winning the case. That required developing a logical theory of the case, successfully communicating it to the jury, and skillfully restraining the opposition’s case.

After the adult jury rendered their verdict, they spent time with the class to explain the basis of their decision – highlighting both the successes and shortcomings of the prosecution and defense case. That was a real-world assessment that gave students valuable feedback on the difference between what they had intended to do and what actually “got through” to the jurors.

All trial testimony was video taped and catalogued in the school library for use by subsequent classes. Students carefully studied video tapes of prior trials to look for strategies that they might utilize. Having your trial video on a library “waiting list” was a peer assessment far more coveted than my evaluation. (Off loading content transfer to homework, so that classroom could be performance-based? Today we call that “flipping the class.”)

I developed the “Donna Osborn Case” after extensive interviews with police, district attorney’s office, medical professionals and advocates for abused women. The fact pattern was realistic and designed with many conflicting accounts that provided good material for cross-examination. While it had a solid evidentiary foundation, verdicts were often driven by belief systems that transcended the evidence and put jurors’ social values to the test. The fact pattern was carefully crafted to give both prosecution and defense a good chance at prevailing, and over the years I saw a fairly even split in verdicts.

In closing this post, I must give a big hat tip to good friend and attorney Jay Postel. The expert witness statements he crafted are a skillful distillation of both merits and shortcomings of the “battered woman defense” and the legal arguments against it.

Over the years I’ve received many interesting email from teachers across the world who have used the Donna Osborn Case. (A steady stream of emails suggests that mock trials may be especially popular with English language classes in China). I also have been amused by reoccurring theme – the student who needs help crafting their closing argument on the eve of summation.

Note: There are additional legal resources of interest to educators available for download at this link. They include simplified rules of evidence, as well as other criminal and constitutional appeals cases that I used in my class. Here’s a timeline of the facts of the Osborn case that someone posted on Dipity.

Image credit: flickr/orangesparrow

Digital Storytelling in the Spanish Language Classroom

I recently blogged from the 2011 US Innovative Education Forum (IEF) sponsored by Microsoft Partners in Learning. Here’s a guest post from one of the IEF finalists I met at the competition. For more on the competition and other guest posts click the IEF tag. ~ Peter

Independence HS Grad
Independence HS Grad

Teacher: Matthew Kelly, Independence High School (Charlotte, NC) Matt’s project site 
Project Title: “Espero [I hope]: presentational communication in Spanish through digital storytelling” 
Overview: Advanced and intermediate students of Spanish explore digital storytelling as a medium for self- expression using the Spanish version of Microsoft Photo Story 3 and Microsoft Movie Maker. The assignment required  students to speak, listen, read and write in the target language and introduced concepts of media literacy based on autobiographical narrative.


 Matt writes: 

“My mates and I witnessed an immense growth in vocabulary since we began speaking in Spanish dialect. I consider myself bilingual today.” ~ Zillah (Gambia/UK), grade 12

Grammar in a meaningful context Deep down this project was born as a grammar exercise. The project arose out of a curriculum meeting I had with my students to plan the direction we’d take over the next few weeks. They said, “We need to work on the conditional tense, the future tense, and the subjunctive mood, but we don’t want any worksheets and we’re not going to fill out verb charts.” The idea was to give students meaningful work that would naturally lead them to use the target grammar. All writing, discussion, and presentation was done in Spanish.

The Personal Essay: Our Hopes for the Future

We started with the students writing an autobiographical essay describing themselves and where they are in their lives right now, then going on to talk about their hopes and aspirations for the future. Students then recorded these essays as a digital audio presentation.

Fears for the Future: Exploring Technique Through a Science Fiction Film

Photo Story 3 makes movies by stringing together still photographs with music or narration. I wanted the students to make careful, deliberate choices about what images to use and how to sequence them along with the audio in order to create a coherent narrative. To see an example of successful filmmaking using still photographs, students viewed Chris Marker’s 1962 film La Jetée in French with Spanish subtitles. Native speakers of Spanish were surprised at how much of the French they could actually understand. Students identified the images and sequences that were the most memorable for them and discussed what made them effective.

You be the Director: Bringing Hopes and Dreams to Life

Having practiced with Photo Story 3 and having explored the technique of telling a story through still photos, students used Photo Story 3 to turn their digital audio presentations into digital video. Using their own photos and appropriately licensed images, students brought their essays about their hopes for the future to life in digital video.

The Oral History Project: Sharing Hopes and Aspirations for the Future

To give students a basis for cross cultural comparison and to encourage growth in the domain of interpersonal communication, students interviewed pairs of native and heritage speakers of Spanish their own age about their hopes and aspirations and recorded these interviews as digital audio recordings.

Tips for Implementation

Most students suddenly become perfectionists when recording digital presentations. Allow native speakers in the group to serve as coaches, listening to and critiquing their classmates’ recordings. This will provide opportunity for growth through non-threatening feedback.

We used Audacity® for our digital audio recording. Allow students who have used it before to circulate and serve as coaches. With a little practice, most students quickly become adept. Microsoft Photo Story 3 is quite easy to use and appropriate for classroom. Make sure students are aware there is no spell check feature in any language!

Many students have been encouraged by teachers to appropriate images from the Web without regard to license or attribution for use in school projects. This project offers an opportunity to educate students about plagiarism, respect for intellectual property, media literacy, and proper attribution of sources. You may wish to:

  • instruct students to use only their own photos;
  • show students how to search for images licensed for reuse;
  • show students how to use www.bibme.org to simplify the process of proper attribution; or
  • direct students to an online archive of images preapproved for educational reuse with citations provided.



“My mates and I witnessed an immense growth in vocabulary since we
began speaking in Spanish dialect…I consider myself bilingual today.”
–Zillah (Gambia/UK), grade 12

That’s what one of my students had to say about her experience with this project. For language teachers taking a communication based approach to language learning, this is a project that will really get students talking. The project addresses all the domains and functions of language: speaking, listening, reading, and writing, and both interpersonal and presentational communication.

Project links: