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English essays evolve into mock trial

Future playwrights, lawyers, actors wow their teacher

Grand Rapids — Jack Burlison defended himself in primetime legal drama fashion while playing Brother Ambrose, the narrator in the short story “The Scarlet Ibis” by James Hurst.

“You want me to say I’m guilty and I’m not,” insisted Jack, a Riverside Middle School eighth-grader, to prosecuting attorney Elijah Spearman while on the stand during the mock trial.

Elijah accused Brother Ambrose of manslaughter in the death of his younger brother, Doodle, a result of running too fast for the boy to keep up, which led to his death. “I thought he would eventually keep up with me… I went back for him. It was too late,” said Jack.

With theatrical moments like that, Advanced English students brought to life their own sequel to the story, with the plot involving the main character being sent to trial.

The original story, first published in 1960, involves 13-year-old Brother Ambrose, who helps care for his little brother William, or “Doodle”, who has many physical challenges. Though Brother helps him learn to walk and encourages him to build strength and stamina, Doodle dies in a storm after Brother leaves him behind.

Preparing for Trial

The initial assignment in teacher Emily Holt’s class was an essay. Students had to take the side of a prosecutor or defense attorney in writing about whether Brother could be blamed for Doodle’s death, Holt said. Students explained their judgment with explicit evidence as to why they held the belief that they held.

“They knocked it out of the park,” she said. “I have not seen writing like that in years … A lot of people in here should be playwrights, lawyers and actors.”

‘It helped me refer to what I read and put it together into an essay. It let me be a lawyer, really.’

— eighth-grader America Brown

Holt said the idea of a mock trial was born when students started talking about acting out their essays. 

Doing so helped them go in depth with the story, she said, and students used their essays in their roles.

“I think they really understood the characters better and there was empathy on both sides.. It really heightened their ability to go into the text and pull out information,” Holt said.

A Dramatic Trial

During the prosecution, Elijah interrogated Jack.

“Why did you want Doodle to work so hard? What did you get out of it? … On the day of Doodle’s death, did you hear him crying out to you? … Why did you ignore the list of don’ts the doctor and your parents had for Doodle? Did you love your brother? “

‘I think they really understood the characters better and there was empathy on both sides… It really heightened their ability to go into the text and pull out information.’

— eighth-grade English teacher Emily Holt

But defense attorney America Brown pleaded the case for Brother to be acquitted because the responsibility of caring for Doodle belonged with their parents.

“Brother took it upon himself and gave the child a gift of being a part of the family,” she argued. “At one point he even gave the child a name, Doodle. Although the parents abandoned William, this also affected Brother. He had to have the feeling of being a parent. He had to do a parents’ job when he was just a new big brother. My client was forced to have full authority over a challenged kid who couldn’t walk, all while being a kid himself.”

The jury of students deliberated in the hall after the case was presented. Judge Holt presided. It was a hung jury.

Jack said he was happy with his performance.

“I’m good at improv,” Jack said. “I just took the stuff I knew and worked it to my wants. I love doing stuff like this. It’s fun.”

Said America: “It helped me refer to what I read and put it together into an essay. It let me be a lawyer, really.”

Explore more unique video stories of students learning, interesting school programs and educators working to help all children succeed.

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Erin Albanese
Erin Albanese
Erin Albanese is associate managing editor and reporter, covering Byron Center, Kentwood, Wyoming and Grand Rapids Community College. She was one of the original SNN staff writers, helping launch the site in 2013 and enjoys fulfilling the mission of sharing the stories of public education. She has worked as a journalist in the Grand Rapids area since 2000. A graduate of Central Michigan University, she has written for The Grand Rapids Press, Advance Newspapers, On-the-Town Magazine and Group Tour Media. Read Erin's full bio

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