GEMS Students Apply Common Core Concepts in Mock Trial

Target 1Student-Centered Learning. FWSU students will engage in personalize learning involving collaborative inquiry, problem solving and creative learning opportunities.

Action Step – Highlight, create and model innovative learning opportunities that promote collaborative inquiry, problem solving and creativity for students and staff

Indicator of Success – Students and staff will apply existing knowledge to create original works as a means of personal or group expression.

“The first requirement of a sound body of law is, that it should correspond with the actual feelings and demands of the community, whether right or wrong.” 
― Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr.The Common Law

Student Jurors returned not guilty verdicts in two cases heard in a criminal trial simulation held in the 7th and 8th Grade Applied Core Mock Trial class at GEMS. The class was formulated by 8th Grade Teachers Mary Bove and Eric Hadd to address some of the shifts required by the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) as well as to extend learning from core subjects in a more interactive way. Criminal Procedure and rights of the accused are natural extensions of the 8th Grade Constitution Unit while argumentation, use of evidence, close reading, and speaking and listening are key to the new English Language Arts Standards.

mock trial

In one case Casey Clevenger, a talented computer student, was accused of vandalizing a school computer lab and hacking the grading database to change grades. In the end, it was not proven that Clevenger committed either crime. In a separate case Beck Martin, a high school student, was accused of murder when a fellow student, who had discovered his cheating on an exam, was found dead on rocks below a beach cliff. Once again the evidence presented to the jury was not enough to elicit a guilty verdict.

Throughout the class, students worked in teams to represent the prosecution and defense while using evidence to create a compelling narrative and craft convincing arguments designed to lead the jury to a conclusion. As each witness testified, the answers helped sway the jury one way or another. As in a real criminal trial, the burden of proof rested on the prosecution which needed to prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. Although both sides worked hard on the case, the prosecution faced a greater challenge.


Both cases were based on materials generated by the Constitutional Rights Foundation and American Bar Association. These packets contain a basic fact situation, witness statements, evidence exhibits, and courtroom rules and procedures.

Students were responsible for keeping a journal throughout the process that the teachers were able to use for assessment of understanding of key concepts, effective use of evidence, and teamwork. Mock trials proved to be an effective resource to get students engaged in civics concepts in an authentic way while also addressing the increased academic rigor of the Common Core Standards.


As a student wrote in her final reflection, “I know this will be helpful to me in the future. I am actually debating whether or not I might want to be a lawyer, partly because this mock trial convinced me that I’m really good at it.”

GEMS Science Learning Gets “Hands-On” as Student’s Explore Owl Pellets

Target 3: Flexible Learning Environments – FWSU will maximize flexible learning environments by redefining the school day, promoting learning experiences that extend beyond the school classroom, and fostering creativity, innovation, and differentiated learning opportunities for all.

Action Step – Make relevant and authentic problems become the focus of connected learning.


Do you know what owls eat to survive the winter? To answer this question, students in Allison MacKenzie’s First-Grade class, rolled up their sleeves and went to work dissecting owl pellets.

owl pellet

A close-up look at an Owl Pellet

The students in her class had spent time this winter reading and writing about different animals located in Vermont. They have discussed how various species survive the winter. They also explored how animals find food – a crucial part of the life cycle. This led them to wonder about what different animals eat in the winter in Vermont.

Seizing a teachable moment, Mrs. Mackenzie asked probing questions about owls. Students made predictions, asked questions, researched and then finally learned firsthand what owls ate through a pellet dissection. It was a wonderful experience for the students to do their own “hands-on” owl scientific investigation!

young gems investigators

Young first-grade explorers!

Students were excited to share their findings to a broader audience then just their classroom! Please click here to listen as they first-grade investigators tell all about their interesting discoveries.

A Focus on Inquiry in GEMS Social Studies

Target 1. Student-Centered Learning –  FWSU students will engage in personalize learning involving collaborative inquiry, problem solving and creative learning opportunities.

Action Step – Highlight, create and model innovative learning opportunities that promote collaborative inquiry, problem solving and creativity for students and staff.

How did corn help civilizations thrive in the Americas? Why did slavery begin in the new world? How did potatoes impact Ireland? These were among the numerous questions students generated recently in Eric Hadd’s 8th Grade Social Studies classes at GEMS. Students completed an inquiry project which will serve as a common assessment at the 7th and 8th grade levels for schools in FWSU.The idea behind a common assessment is that a group of teachers will ask their students to complete a task which measures the same skill or key concept. The resulting collection of work will be examined by the group of teachers and they will discuss ideas for fine-tuning instruction to achieve improved learning outcomes.

Following some introductory learning about the Columbian Exchange, Mr. Hadd asked his students to formulate a probing question related to the massive transfer of plants, animals, technology, disease and culture between the old and new worlds which began in 1492. A probing question often asks how or why and requires an explanation, evidence and examples to support the answer. The ability of students to formulate probing questions is one of the standards addressed by the project.

Students then conducted research by locating quality sources and collecting relevant information that they used to produce a succinct, well supported answer. This research process along with citing sources and presenting results through appropriate formats is the other standard teachers have been looking at closely. Short research projects are an important part of the new Common Core State Standards that FWSU is continuing to implement across the curriculum.

The final phase of the project involved creating an infographic to provide an alternate and more visual way to share their research with others. Infographics were created using a variety of design apps on the students’ iPads. Most included images, timelines, graphs, maps, important vocabulary and a small number of key notes. When students shared their findings the infographic format made it easier to show others what they had learned, answer questions, and defend their conclusions.

potato blightMr. Hadd has found inquiry activities to be a valuable part of his classroom. Powerful learning takes place when students are allowed to go in-depth with a question they have chosen within a broader topic of study. When students formulate a question it is highly relevant to them, thus making inquiry a great way to personalize learning. The research and higher-order thinking of these projects also transfer well to other content areas and life activities.

FWSU Teachers will be meeting in teams during the January 21st inservice day and the discussions about student work will be a valuable part of planning future instruction.