“ALL RISE,” intoned Deputy Smith, who on this day was also serving as Court Officer. Clearly it wasn’t going to be an ordinary Middle School English class, especially when the “judge” stepped in. Even with a mask, the judge looked familiar...
Students in two 8th grade English classes had been studying “The Tell-Tale Heart,” a short story by Edgar Allan Poe published in 1843. This piece of gothic fiction is mysterious and uncertain, and it gives readers a lot to unpack as they attempt to learn what really happened. Was this an act of cold-blooded murder, or was this crime the work of an insane and unreliable narrator? In the short story itself the narrator attempts to explain his actions, but would the reader be persuaded?
Ms. Smith’s students were about to dig into those questions with a mock trial complete with a judge’s bench, counsel tables, witness box, and jury box. Students took assorted roles as Mr. Narrator, prosecuting attorney, defense attorney, and other characters relevant to the case. There was also a jury comprising OV students and staff.
And the judge? It was the Honorable Zachary T. Wentworth, presiding. “Judge” Wentworth graduated from Otselic Valley in 2003 and is currently the real life Chenango County Public Defender. His guidance enriched the mock trial experience so that this two-day project undertaken by two English classes provided both career exploration for students, and a better understanding of this well-known short story.
“Judge” Wentworth and Ms. Smith guided students through the trial process in careful detail, encouraged them to think about questions appropriate to their respective roles, and helped them build a case for the jury to consider. Students and staff in the jury box paid close attention to every aspect of the trial because at its close, they had a decision to make.
Finally, the outcome: Both juries decided that the defendant was guilty of the murder and not insane.
This creative classroom experience was made possible thanks to many. We appreciate all jury members who took time out of their day to assist students. We appreciate Deputy Smith, our Safety Resource Officer, who contributed his years of professional experience to the proceedings in a way that helped make the event real. We appreciate Public Defender Zach Wentworth, an alumnus who frequently gives back to Otselic Valley Central School. His patience, teaching, professionalism, and even his understanding of “The Tell-Tale Heart” shared on behalf of our students earns our highest thanks. Finally, we appreciate students who stepped out of their comfort zones in a public way to try new roles and learn so much about their assignment. Well done, everyone!