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Mock trial provides a real learning experience
katniss testifies 1
Katniss Everdeen, portaryed an Effingham County Middle School sixth-grader, testifies in the trial of Coriolanus Snow at the Effingham County Judicial Complex. - photo by Photo by Pat Donahue

The judge issued his sentence of the defendant, much to the delight of the gallery — full of Effingham County Middle School sixth-graders.

Effingham County Chief Magistrate Scott Hinson ordered Coriolanus Snow, the defendant and president of Panem to “scrape all the gum off the lunchroom tables, to put enough in your mouth that you cannot put in anymore and you must chew for 45 minutes” as the mock trial of

“The Hunger Games” antagonist and villain came to an end Friday afternoon in the Ebenezer Courtroom.

The two days of mock trials in front of Judge Hinson were ECMS literature teacher Bilinda Sikes’ idea, and she had a group of sixth-graders and seventh-graders take their case to court each day.

“Our goal is to give students authentic learning experiences, give them things they can do with what they have learned that connect to something outside the classroom,” she said.

Sikes challenged her students to see what would happen to a villain in a novel the classes were reading, and how that bad character might be brought to justice. Sikes had been on the mock trial team during her high school days.

“I had a little bit of understanding of behind the scenes in what goes into creating the case,” she said.

There also was help from a law student who worked with the middle schoolers, and parents volunteered for jury duty.

“We also had community involvement,” Sikes said.

Sikes and fellow teacher Jennifer King and the ECMS STEAM team began working on the trial preparations after the Thanksgiving holidays. When Sikes pitched the idea to her students, they responded with collective verbal equivalent of a raised eyebrow.

“They said, ‘you want us to do what?’” she recalled.

Sikes showed the statutes students had to go through and told they had to determine the character’s guilt.

“Can you prove it?” she inquired of her students. “You can charge it if you can’t prove it.”

So her students went back through the books to gather evidence.

“So they got a little frustrated,” Sikes said. “They had to go back and read two entire novels. They have to find evidence in what amounts to about 650 pages of text. It reaffirmed to them the importance of reading closely the first time.”

As the students dug into the assignment and began making their cases, they also began to embrace the task, Sikes acknowledged.

“When they saw it starting to come together, they really started getting excited,” she said, “and they started jockeying for who would get what job. They’re young enough they get really excited about things but they’re old enough to do some really cool things with it. Their parents jumped on board. They trust me I have their kids’ best interests at heart and I don’t take that trust lightly.”

For four trials, there were three different outcomes — and Judge Hinson meted out unique penalties in all four findings. Snow was found guilty of murder and inhumane acts by one jury, and the other three convicted him of murder but not inhumane acts. Hinson handed down a punishment of having the defendant’s toenails on the left foot removed and to be hanged by his left ear until the right ear fell off.

Students worked on the trial preparation up to the Christmas holidays and added the final touches early last week.

“They had Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday to tie it up and put on a bow on it,” Sikes said. “I couldn’t be prouder of the outcome.”

Sikes also was effusive in her praise and gratitude for the court system’s cooperation, right down to bailiffs, constable Jorge Velasquez, Judge Hinson and Sheriff Jimmy McDuffie.

“The courthouse and the people here have done an amazing job of rolling out the red carpet and made us feel like what we were doing in our classroom was important enough for them that they would set aside two whole days of a courtroom and staff it for us,” she said.

Sikes also was proud of her students and how they took on their unusual and complex assignment and carried it out.

“They are extremely special,” she said. “I’m always biased as a proud momma of this group. You want someone else to look and validate what your kids are doing. They are amazing. I’m glad you see that. I can’t say enough about them. I love them so very much and when we do things like this and they see how much work went into it, they know that.”