Goldilocks on Trial: Students Practice Civic Engagement

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A student speaks before U.S. Court of Appeals Judge Marjorie Rendell. Jesse Bernstein

On the 19th floor of the James A. Byrne United States Courthouse is the Maris Courtroom, a cavernous space designed with an eye toward sobriety and seriousness. It is home to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 3rd Circuit, high above the city of Philadelphia.

On the morning of March 11, however, the courtroom played host not to an appeal, but to a criminal trial of a young woman accused of trespassing. In the end, a jury of her peers found the defendant, Goldilocks, not guilty.

The mock trial was a joint project between the Perelman Jewish Day School and the Rendell Center for Civics and Civic Engagement.

Founded four years ago, the Rendell Center encourages students to indulge their civic and legal curiosity from a very young age; the participants in these proceedings were part of Pam Frank’s second-grade class. The students, who had been practicing their scripted lines in the weeks leading up to the trial, served as witnesses, jurors, prosecutors, bailiffs, defense attorneys and, of course, Goldilocks, played by Shoshanna Goodman.

At one point, Goodman said she felt she wasn’t getting a fair trial. “I feel like they just want me to be in jail,” she said.

This was the second year Perelman did a mock trial with the Rendell Center.

“They learned a lot about the judicial system, about how to problem-solve,” Frank said. “It’s important to teach them high-level thinking skills.”

A few parents watched from the back of the courtroom as their children read their lines, occasionally helped with pronunciation by the presiding judge.

Unlike the rest of the roles, this actress was playing herself, in a way: It was none other than Marjorie “Midge” Rendell, who’s been a judge at the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 3rd Circuit since 1997.

The judge founded the Rendell Center with her ex-husband, former Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell, four years ago. Back when she was Pennsylania’s first lady, she said, her primary focus was civic education for young children.

“I really thought that if we teach the children, when they’re young, the values of citizenship and about our democracy, maybe we wouldn’t have to convince them to vote when they turn 18,” she said.

The students smile with U.S. Court of Appeals Judge Rendell. Jesse Bernstein

At the mock trial, Rendell kept the proceedings moving along from the bench, flanked on each side by empty chairs that would typically seat her colleagues during an appeal. She also sat with the jurors during their deliberations, out of the room while the team of prosecutors chanted, “Guilty! Guilty!”

After the jurors returned a not guilty verdict, Goldilocks and her defense team whooped and hollered as the prosecution resumed its chanting. Rendell thanked the jury, and explained the deliberations to the irate prosecution team.

“They took it very seriously. They came up with arguments pro or con as to whether she had permission or not,” she said. “Did she know what she was doing was wrong? Did that matter? I mean, all these ideas were floating back and forth.”

She also explained how Goldilocks may still find herself in civil court, potentially liable for breaking Papa Bear’s chair.

The floor was opened for questions, which ranged from queries about “juvy” to when kids are allowed in court. Regarding “juvy,” Rendell said, “It’s not prison, but it’s not great.”

Following the end of the Q&A and the morning session, members of the prosecution team remained indignant, yelling, “Objection!” into a microphone.

There was no question the students were engaged.

“The study of civics is a critical part of Perelman’s elementary educational experience, which led to the development of the Specter Family Civics curriculum,” said Perelman Head of School Judy Groner in an email. “This program is integrated into social studies and literacy curricula on every grade level. Perelman students are uniquely prepared for these units, as their early exposure to the Jewish legal system amplified their understanding of American law.”

Beth Specker, executive director of the Rendell Center, visited the school in the weeks leading up to the trial.

“The literature-based mock trial programs provides a dynamic interactive opportunity for students to … gain a deeper understanding of the U.S. judicial system and constitutional principles while also developing skills in reading, writing, speaking and listening,” she said via email. “The experience takes students into the gray areas of democratic deliberation, creating an arena in which each student can form and support his/her own opinion about an unclear dilemma that often occurs in democratic societies.”

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