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  • Writer's pictureDeborah Morris Burton

Is it Still Possible to Have a Mock Trial in the Coronavirus Era?

Updated: Sep 24, 2020

Last week, I was contacted by a teacher in a homeschool co-op who must now conduct her class’ mock trial virtually. Just one more little change in response to the coronavirus pandemic. So, how does one hold a mock trial in this time of social distancing, shutdowns and stay at home orders?

The answer will depend on many factors. (And remember that these factors are constantly changing.) What is the situation in your county or state? Some states or counties have stay-at-home orders, some have shelter-in-place orders, others have recommendations and at the time of this writing the nation is recommended to use personal precautions and social distancing. What are the specific characteristics of your group? When is the mock trial scheduled—the farther out it is scheduled, the more likely your group may be able to hold it in person. How big is your group? Depending on the location and time, a small group may have the option to meet but a larger one may not. If you plan to hold your mock trial in a courthouse, whether or not the courthouse is open or if a compressed schedule will still allow for your group will determine whether you need to make other plans. You might be able to postpone the mock trial until a time when your class can meet in person. The President has mentioned the possibility that less-affected areas of the nation might be able to get back to some semblance of normalcy before more-affected areas. So, if you live in one of the less-affected areas (at least at this point), it is possible that you may still be able to have your mock trial in person. However, if your co-op has already cancelled in-person classes for the rest of the semester and your mock trial class is going forward, but remotely, there are some things to think about. I will be assuming you are using the Homeschool Court mock trial curriculum, but the principles should apply equally if you are using another curriculum. The first consideration for any remote learning is technology. What electronics will you and your students be using? What are the internet capabilities in your house and your students’? You may need to figure out how to get adequate internet for everyone. If libraries, bookstores and restaurants are still open in your area, your students may be able to complete at least the preparation phases of the mock trial there, using free wi-fi. For the actual mock trial, you may need to figure out how students without streaming capabilities can get those capabilities, perhaps going to a relative’s or friend’s home with high speed internet (if allowed by your jurisdiction). Classes If you are still going through the chapters in the Student Worktext, you can complete those remotely. There are a couple of ways to teach in a virtual classroom. You could create a video of you teaching any material you planned to teach and send it as a link to your students. That would avoid most technological issues you would have with live streaming. The discussion aspect of a mock trial class is often one of the favorite parts for students. They often love hearing others' opinions and getting to share their own. Discussion with students that you might have had in class can be handled a few ways. One way is to have everyone streaming at the same time and have real-time discussions. If you live in an area where cable or other fast, consistent internet is common, streaming opens up many opportunities for you. However, if you and your students do not live in such an area, discussion could happen a couple of other ways.

One way is to create a group text between you and the class members. Obviously, the ages of your students will determine whether this is possible or appropriate. You would want to make sure you get parental approval to do this. Even if students don’t have personal phones, their parents may allow them to receive group texts they can respond to. There would likely be a time lag with this method, as students could write and respond at any time. You could give them a deadline for responses, say, “Please write any responses by tomorrow at noon.”

Another way is to create an email that students can share discussion items and respond with “reply all,” so that all members can see their response. Again, there may be a lag in seeing responses, if everyone’s not on email at the same time, but all members of the class could see and respond to comments. For enrichment assignments, you could have students upload their own videos presenting what they learned. You might want to create a YouTube channel solely for your mock trial class, where you can post even short videos students can view. You could also have students create Power Point presentations and share them. The Mock Trial It is very difficult to imagine a way to hold a mock trial remotely without using video conferencing. Video conferencing allows for real-time interaction between all participants in the mock trial. There are many options for video conferencing: Skype, Google G Suite, Officer 365 Microsoft Teams, Go To Meeting, Zoom. There are probably more that I’m not familiar with. As the mock trial teacher, your comfort level with a particular technology is most important. For whatever reason, Zoom seems to be the most popular right now. Its stock price has skyrocketed since the beginning of the pandemic. People are using it for business and personal get togethers. Many schools are using it to continue their students’ education online.

Zoom’s free version allows up to 100 participants for up to 40 minutes, although I believe they have relaxed the time limit. Even if they haven’t, I read that people would simply sign off and sign back on through another participant. Whatever video conferencing tool you use, one recommendation is to schedule at least one practice session prior to the mock trial. (Dare I call it a trial run?) Find out any technological difficulties at that time. That doesn’t mean something else won’t happen on the day of the trial, but this helps ensure that all participants have some familiarity with the technology when it matters less. This practice session should be fairly easy to use with a mock trial curriculum. You can schedule time for students to share any assignments you gave them, or for you to present a lesson. You can schedule sessions where students from each side of the mock trial get together to plan trial strategy, witness questions and opening and closing statements. It is likely that video conferencing will be a new experience for many, if not most, of your class. Expect some glitches to occur. A mock trial can proceed very close to an actual courthouse experience. Witnesses can be questioned, and it appears from my brief experience with Zoom that the application will highlight whichever person is speaking at the time. Everyone else can see and hear the evidence. Everyone can see and hear the opening and closing statements from each side. The only aspect of the mock trial that might need a little coordination would be the jury members’ deliberation. I see three possible options of how to handle this: 1. Just have the jury deliberate on the call and ask everyone else not to speak during that time. This would have the advantage of being simple, and it would give everyone insight into what was persuasive to the jury and what wasn’t. 2. Have the jury leave the call and call into an already-arranged second call just for jury members, and then join back into the first call with everyone else, and announce the jury’s decision. 3. Have the jury leave the call and call into an already-arranged second call just for jury members. In the meantime, the first call ends. After the jury informs the mock trial teacher that they have reached a decision (perhaps even being given a deadline up front), all members of the first call are told to call into a third call, where the decision is announced and the mock trial continues to its conclusion.

In order to keep enthusiasm high for your students, you should encourage the same dress that you would have in a mock trial in person: professional dress for attorneys, regular clothes (but nice) for witnesses and jury members, and a robe for the judge. If you can get a gavel to the judge, that would be great! There are security and privacy issues with video conferencing that you will want to pay some attention to. I will mostly address Zoom issues, as they have been in the news quite a bit lately and it is a very popular tool, but remember that other methods will also have similar issues. Zoom Security Security while using the Zoom application has been in the news recently. Something called “zoombombings” has occurred, where uninvited participants crash meetings and share violent or even pornographic material. Obviously this is upsetting to all involved, and something you will want to keep in mind. And although Zoom is getting all the attention right now, because it is being used extensively, there would be similar concerns about any video conferencing tool you would use. It does appear that Zoom is trying to address security concerns with its users. They have blog posts (links are below) that present ideas on steps you can take to avoid any negative event happening. Looking at their recommendations, I believe most mock trial hosts would use most of these steps anyway. Briefly, they are: *Make your meetings private rather than public. *Manage participants by enabling the waiting room feature. *Do not share links to the meeting on social media (send individual invitations by email or text message). *Turn the screen sharing feature to “only host” before the meeting begins. *Lock meetings so new participants cannot join in. *Disable file transfer. For more specific information suggested by Zoom, please read the following blog posts: (Keep Crashers from Crashing Your Zoom Event) (Best Practices for Protecting Your Zoom Meeting) (How to Use Zoom Waiting Rooms) Privacy Issues There are many privacy issues when using video conferencing tools. One is whether the session is going to be videotaped or not. Videotaping your mock trial would be nice for parents or other family members who were not able to see the mock trial originally, or to have as a keepsake for individual families or the co-op. If you choose to go with this option, make sure that there are tight controls on who gets access to the video, and do not post on social media, where you would have no control over who obtains the link. Regardless of your decision, state at the beginning of the mock trial video conference whether it will be videotaped or not, giving others the right to decline to participate—even better, if you’re going to videotape, get permission from each parent beforehand and explain clearly what guidelines are in place.

At the beginning of any video conference, it is best to get verbal consent from everyone on the call if there is going to be a recording. Specify who will have access to the video and make sure they agree not to share it with others. Stress the importance of each participant’s privacy. Make sure you share with the other families any details that could influence their decision whether to take part in the virtual mock trial or not. Ask them to choose usernames that do not have any personal, identifying information. For example, the Miller family could choose names related to a family hobby or interest, and then choose different names for different children. If you go this way, however, make sure that all participants know each other’s fake names. In the mock trial setting, it is probably best to have each student and their families sign in as their character in the mock trial. Perhaps the family members can use the same screen name, but with a number added after it, to distinguish them from their student. Remind families that when they are participating in a video conference, whether the trial itself or practice sessions, they should be careful about the space they are in. They should make sure the spot they choose does not have anything personal that could identify them or their family in it—such as family photos, anything with an address or phone number on it, a landmark outside a window, or anything else. With a little bit of forethought and planning, having a virtual mock trial is entirely possible and could be a great solution in this time of global pandemic. The students get to present their evidence and arguments they worked so hard on. There might even be an application for remote mock trials at times other than these social distancing times! While it may not be the ideal mock trial environment, on the other hand, it could conceivably open up the opportunity of participating in a mock trial to students who are physically distant from each other and otherwise would have no chance to participate.

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