Using Rules of the Courtroom to Improve Student's Writing

If you’ve read my piece on using Eminem and Wikipedia to teach students about research papers, than you know I’m always looking for a fun, creative way to drive home some essential points about non-fiction writing in my classroom. Several years ago, when our school began our C.S.I. project, I stumbled across another neat trick while preparing some young, aspiring attorney’s for an upcoming mock trial.

It turns out, many of the rules of the courtroom that I was asking my lawyers to abide by apply equally to the research projects I’d been asking them write all year. After all, in a court room, lawyers are not allowed to simply say what they think happened. They call witnesses who give testimony as to what they believe happened. Similarly, when writing good non-fiction writing, in particular research papers, students should not simply “say” what they think happened. Instead, they should find sources that support their position and write their work in a way that allows their “sources” to tell the story for them. Their “opening” and “closing” arguments merely sum-up the positions of the “expert witnesses.”

Up until this point I’ve always used their background knowledge about writing research papers as a scaffold to teaching them about courtroom procedure, however, I’m considering flipping some things around and doing a sort of “mock trial” earlier in the school year in an effort to use these five common courtroom objections to teach students about writing.

Below you can find the things I find “Objectionable” as a teacher, both in our mock trials and in their research papers. For the sake of clarity, I’ve written as I would explain it to students. If you’re interested in learning more about our C.S.I. Unit and why it’s the coolest unit I teach all year, CLICK HERE.

5 Common Courtroom Objections & How They Apply to Your Writing

Asked and Answered – No need to repeat the same point over and over again. Once you’ve established a key element in your case, it’s time to move on.

Hearsay – Any source that is claiming to get information from another source is never as good as the original. This is a great opportunity to talk about primary vs secondary sources. In the court of law, only primary sources are allowed, unless the information can be corroborated by someone else. In a good research paper, primary sources are certainly preferred, and if you must use secondary sources, try and find somebody else who draws the same conclusion of the event as your first source.

Assuming Facts Not in Evidence – We can’t jump to conclusions in the courtroom, and likewise, in our research papers we need to make sure that facts we present are properly cited. Make sure you’re getting your information from a reputable source, and use quotes or paraphrase to show your information. Don’t just state a fact and expect us to believe your word is true.

Relevance – Nobody wants to hear a witness in a criminal case talk about a bunch of things that have nothing to do with the case at hand. Likewise, make sure the information you present in your paper is relevant to your thesis. Significant information only, no need to fill up two paragraphs on what Abraham Lincoln’s childhood was like if your paper is about his assassination.

Calls for Speculation – As a lawyer in a courtroom, you’re not allowed to ask witnesses to make a guess. Similarly, you’re not allowed to guess in a research paper. Find a source to support your argument and serve as an “expert witness” who IS allowed to guess. But only if you’ve explained that they are in fact, an expert. Sadly, as a student doing research, you are not an expert. Yet.

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