Eighth-graders at Cortez Middle School held mock trials at Montezuma County Combined Court on March 8 and 12 to cap a study of genocide.
The classes, led by eighth-grade language arts teachers Lissa Lycan and Katherine Freeman, have been studying the Holocaust this semester.
According to Lycan, the students worked on language skills while researching for their mock trial.
Students were assigned a current or historical event that could be considered genocide, and prepared supporting and opposing arguments.
The teachers chose four cases, including the current Rohingya crisis in Myanmar. The students researched and argued whether those events should be considered genocide.
“Clearly they are all horrible things that happened in history, there is no question about that,” Lycan said. “The question is whether or not they fit the definition of genocide, which is something that real. Very smart people argue it every day currently, so it is a real-life situation.”
According to Lycan, two volunteers from the community helped prepare the students for the trials.
A retired school counselor from California visited the classes to help them prepare their arguments.
Another community volunteer was a retired lawyer, also from California.
“He came in and taught the kids about courtroom procedure and how trials work, and the kids just loved it – they were so engaged,” Lycan said.
Lycan said she thought her students learned a lot about the difference between debate and legal arguments. From the community volunteers, they learned about the concept of “innocent until proven guilty.”
“We learned a trial is set up so that it is much easier for the defense to win because you are innocent until proven guilty, and so the burden of proof is on the prosecution’s side,” Lycan said. “I think the kids went into these cases really convinced the case they were working on was a genocide.”
The students argued the cases of the Trail of Tears, American slavery, the Rohingya crisis in Myanmar and the Irish Potato Famine.
The jury of students decided only one of the cases was genocide – the Rohingya crisis.
The students had to rely on their ability to digest information and produce high-quality work, according to Lycan. She said community and student engagement and interest was very powerful in the project.