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Mock trial team excels at state finals

Activity hones focus, stage presence, time management

Caledonia — An avid participant in Caledonia High School’s theater program, senior Grace Bryant recently discovered how her acting skills translated from the stage to the courtroom.

This semester, Grace memorized her lines to play the stepmother in “Cinderella,” while memorizing court case details for the mock trial competition, hosted by the Michigan Center for Civic Education and the State Bar of Michigan.

During competition, teams of students take on the roles of attorneys and witnesses and compete against each other in courtrooms in front of judges and lawyers. They cannot use notes and must rely on their own knowledge.

“My acting comes out with playing the role of an attorney and a witness (during mock trial),” Grace said. “You take on a persona as a character, and having a theater background helps you portray that.”

Learning Through Competition 

Jenny Jonkman, Caledonia High School’s mock trial adviser and social studies teacher, said competitions are designed for students to reenact cases in a real courtroom setting.

Mock trials are exciting events, she said, and teach content, appreciation of the adversarial judicial system and inspire students to think critically and creatively about the law.

Each student is evaluated individually and as a team by a presiding judge, who rules on their case and makes sure the trial is conducted authentically. 

“One student cannot do all the work and one student cannot carry the case or team,” Jonkman said. “Each member plays an integral role for the team’s success.”

For the regional competitions, CHS sent four mock trial teams to compete — the most ever from the district and more than any other school in the state, Jonkman said.

Senior Alexa Pearson said the regional competitions in Kent and Oakland county were intense. 

“We watch a lot of trials and run through our case in class, but (in competition) you have to know your stuff and be prepared,” she said. 

Added Junior Meghan Ruthven: “You have to stay focused and keep your head in the game. You don’t know how the jury will score you, but every point counts.”

Caledonia High School is the only school in Kent, Barry, Allegan or Ottawa counties that qualified for the Michigan mock trial state finals. A team from Forest Hills Eastern/Northern won the 2023 state championship.

Their team traveled to Lansing on March 23 to compete against 12 other teams for the state championship at Veterans Memorial Courthouse in Lansing. 

Jonkman’s students made it to the state semifinal round and finished in the top four after a long day of fierce competition. 

“The trials are mentally exhausting and students have to be focused for hours at a time,” Jonkman said. “I told my students, ‘Stay focused and in the moment. You have prepared these cases for months and you all know what you’re doing.’”

By being a part of the mock trial team, Grace said she learned how to have a stage presence when standing up, how to speak in front of people and how to manage her time. 

“There are real consequences if you don’t prepare and know your stuff,” she said. “You will get embarrassed in front of a courtroom of people, teachers and classmates.” 

‘You have to stay focused and keep your head in the game. You don’t know how the jury will score you, but every point counts.’

— Caledonia junior Meghan Ruthven

Making Mock Trial a Reality 

Jonkman teaches a prerequisite course, “Intro to Mock Trial,” and “Trial Techniques and Foundations of Law,” in the spring for students who want to compete in the mock trial competitions. 

In 2011, local attorney Elizabeth Yard met with the high school principal and discussed starting a mock trial club, a program required to have an attorney and classroom teacher working with the teams. 

Jonkman said she was immediately interested and began running the after-school club alongside Yard. It started with 10 students and eventually grew to 40 students signing up this year to take Jonkman’s semester-long elective course. 

Caledonia High School teacher and mock trial adviser Jenny Jonkman, far right, reviews case strategy with her students (courtesy)

“I discussed the idea for developing a class for high-school students which taught trial procedure, justice and rule of law, and applied it to the annual case released by the Michigan Center for Civic Education,” she said. 

Every year, Jonkman divides students into multiple teams to prepare the same 50- to 100-page civil or criminal case.

‘The trials are mentally exhausting and students have to be focused for hours at a time. I told my students, ‘Stay focused and in the moment. You have prepared these cases for months and you all know what you’re doing.’

— Jenny Jonkman, mock trial team adviser 

Students receive feedback on their work from their teacher, Yard and recently from Hon. Robert Jonker, appointed by President George W. Bush in 2007 to serve on the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Michigan, to better prepare them for competition. 

Junior Sebastian Rissley said he signed up for Jonkman’s introductory course, and by the end of the semester thought he was ready for competition.

“I feel like (mock trial) helped me with my public speaking and voice projection,” he said. “It’s easier now to give a speech in another class.”

Meghan said she took the class to help prepare her for a future human or civil rights law career. 

“This class has taught us how to give effective feedback, but also to take constructive criticism from my peers,” she said. “(Feedback) is truly from a place of trying to help each other be better, because we are all in this together.”

Read more from Caledonia: 
Verdict is in: mock trial adviser earns state award 
His life is a lesson

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Alexis Stark
Alexis Stark
Alexis Stark is a reporter covering Byron Center, Caledonia, Godfrey-Lee, Kenowa Hills and Thornapple Kellogg. She grew up in metro Detroit and her journalism journey brought her west to Grand Rapids via Michigan State University where she covered features and campus news for The State News. She also co-authored three 100-question guides to increase understanding and awareness of various human identities, through the MSU School of Journalism. Following graduation, she worked as a beat reporter for The Ann Arbor News, covering stories on education, community, prison arts and poetry, before finding her calling in education reporting and landing at SNN. Alexis is also the author of a poetry chapbook, “Learning to Sleep in the Middle of the Bed.”


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