Defending lawyer Michaela Alexyon delivers her closing argument in favor of John Brown.
CLAYTON -- History has a way of repeating itself.
And, that’s exactly what happened recently in Sarah Lewis’s eighth-grade social studies class at Riverwood Middle School.
A jury of students listened attentively as the final witness was questioned in the case of John Brown vs. the State of Virginia.
William Wells, characterized by Spencer Keefer, answered the prosecution’s question regarding the phrasing Brown used when inciting slaves to riot.
“He said to use force if necessary,” Keefer told the prosecutor.
While the real trial of John Brown took place 154 years ago, Lewis’s students brought history to life with a re-enactment of the famous abolitionist’s trial. Brown helped focus attention on the southern state’s use of slaves.
“Knowing the story of John Brown, who was a catalyst in the Civil War, is important, but teaching the students interactively in a trial situation teaches them so many skills in addition to the facts,” Lewis said. “Students learn to work together, be prepared to handle their portion of the assignment and presentation skills.”
Each student was assigned a character to play in the trial from judges, attorneys, witnesses and jury members to court reporters and sketch artists. “I try to assign the students roles based on their talents and strengths,” Lewis said. “For example, I have a student that loves to draw, and draws constantly, so he was assigned the role of sketch artist. The drawing he did was beautiful and he got to use his talent.”
The students were taught the events leading up to the trial so that they could accurately portray the events of the day in question. They did not learn the result of the actual trial so as to not bias the students’ verdict in their re-enacted cases.
After the classroom jurors returned with the verdict, Lewis explained how the actual jurors voted more than a century and a half ago. “Each of my classes gets to vote on the guilt or innocence of John Brown.” One class found Brown innocent, but the rest of Lewis’ classes agreed with the actual jurors and found him guilty.
Her seventh block student jurors returned to the judge with a five to one verdict to convict. Seneca Lovejoy, the dissenting juror, believed that because it could not be proven that Brown’s bullets hit any of the people at whom he fired he should not be found guilty. Denisse Hernandez-Jijon spoke for the other jurors saying that they found him guilty of inciting the riot and providing the slaves with weapons.
Class discussion was split. “I agree with Denisse because saying he is innocent is almost like saying that Hitler was not guilty because he didn’t kill anyone himself,” said Erin Gallaher.
The class watched a video that explained the real life outcome of the trial and the subsequent hanging of John Brown.
“I wasn’t surprised that he was found guilty, but I was surprised that he was executed,” said Emily Patton.
Patton also said learning the history lesson through the more interactive approach was better for students than more traditional learning methods. “It was a fun new way to learn instead of just reading it out of the text.”
Caleb Rogers agreed, “It was exciting to be able to see both sides of the argument and I liked to feel what it was like to be there.”
Lewis said the eighth grade history team re-enacts several trials throughout the year. “Doug Pavlock [another eighth grade teacher] created the trial component of our syllabus several years ago and it has always been a highlight for the students.”