Monday, October 19, 2020

Justice for the Big Bad Wolf


The mock trial cast celebrates a successful proceeding. | Photos by Don Manley

Defendant Alexander T. Wolf maintained he was an innocent victim of circumstances and not the vicious killer of two acquaintances.

However, the prosecution insisted the evidence was incontrovertible and left jurors with but one logical conclusion, that he was indeed a big, bad wolf, guilty of murder most foul.

This drama played out recently not in a courtroom, but in a lower (elementary) school activity room at Seacrest Country Day School, in a mock trial conducted by third grade students there.

Judge, jury, prosecutor, defense attorneys, bailiff, defendant; all were members of teacher Meghan Schimmel’s 14-student classroom. The gallery was filled with parents and other family members and students from other classrooms, including the fourth graders who served as the jury.

The lessons in the legal system’s workings served as a fun, end-of-the-year exercise schools don’t normally offer for elementary students, said Seacrest’s upper school mock trial coach, Valerie Foley, a criminal defense attorney with the Gulf Coast Legal Group in Naples.

She directed the creation of the scenario the third graders used for the mock trial, in conjunction with Schimmel and the students themselves.

“Normally, mock trial is reserved for the high school, but this year, the third grade teacher was trying to come up with something different they could do that includes their study of the judicial branch,” she said, “They said, is there anything we can do to mimic that for our younger students and this is what we came up with.”

Mock trials utilize scripts, but few are suitable for elementary school students and none were deemed right for the class, said Foley.

So a homemade script was devised, based on the plot of Jon Scieszka’s 1989 children’s book “The True Story of the 3 Little Pigs!,” which presents the fairytale from the perspective of the traditional villain, in this case, one Alexander T. Wolf.

The story makes the case that he visited his neighbors, the three pigs, not to eat them, but to borrow a cup of sugar to bake his grandmother’s birthday cake. It was sneezes caused by allergies, not a malicious decision to “huff and puff” and blow them down that destroyed the first two homes, one made of straw and the other, sticks, where he stopped. In both cases, the pigs died in the collapse, so as a self-respecting carnivore, he dined on the carcasses.

Only the third pig escaped unscathed, because, of course, his house was made of brick.

“We decided the best way to teach this to the third grade was to sit down with them and help them write their own scripts,” said Foley, whose son, Conner portrayed a defense attorney in the proceedings. “We picked the fairytale and they just ran with it. We just sat together for a couple weeks. It was a lot of work and they did a great job.”

The exercise dovetailed perfectly with the class’ study of the branches of government, particularly the judicial side.

“This is really a student-driven mock trial, meaning that the students really did everything on their own, from their costumes to their lines to the roles that they wanted to play,” said Schimmel. “I’d only taught fifth grade before this year, so I really didn’t know if this would work with ages 8 and 9. But once you put the power in their hands and give them the opportunity to do things on their own, what you can create is pretty amazing.”

The roughly one-hour-long mock trial mimicked the stages of a real criminal case, but with some alterations. It began with Foley setting the scene by reading the brief “The True Story of the 3 Little Pigs!” aloud. Next, Alexander T. Wolf was tried to determine whether the prosecuting State of Florida could prove their assertion of guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.

Mr. Wolf’s attorney contended that it was all a big misunderstanding caused by assumptions made by police when he confronted his client outside the brick home of Porky, the third pig.

There were four witnesses called to testify; the arresting officer, the surviving pig, the wolf’s grandmother and finally, the wolf himself.

In the end, the jury of fourth graders supplied the one thing not scripted, a verdict. They found Alexander T. Wolf not guilty because the state failed to prove the pigs were not dead after their houses collapsed.

Prior to the mock trial, Foley said she’d be happy if all the children learned from the experience is, “what a courtroom looks like and sounds like and how much responsibility each person has.”

Sheldon Bellestri and M.J. Solomon, who played one of his two attorneys, said they definitely gained insight into the legal system’s inner workings.

“I learned that trials aren’t easy, it’s hard to prepare and it takes a lot of time to remember your lines,” said Bellestri, AKA, the wolf. “The most challenging part was remembering my lines. The most fun was just sitting in the witness chair answering the questions.”

Solomon enthusiastically said she may want to become a lawyer when she grows up.

“It was really fun because my friends and I learned a lot,” she said. My friends were on the other team also and we were like, ‘No hard feelings if you win,’ and I won,” she added with a giggle and a big smile. “It really helped us with teamwork because we all had to find ways to question them and to tell the story. It was just cool how there were two sides to the story and we really had no idea who was going to win. There were reasons why they could win and there were reasons why we could win.”

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