Several years ago, I was called for jury duty. At first I tried to get out of it because I didn’t want to miss time in the classroom with my students, but then I realized that I could use my experience on the jury in our mini-unit on 12 Angry Men. I could share a real-life experience with my students to help them understand what goes on in a jury room while also getting them to understand the motivation of the eighth juror in the play. So, I did it. I was selected to hear a criminal case regarding domestic abuse charges involving adopted children. Being the father of an adopted son, this case hit home for me. While I did not allow my prior knowledge, emotions, and biases to cloud my judgment, I did use my background to better understand the case, the facts, and the law that was supposedly broken. I listened carefully to the facts presented by both sides. When the jury deliberated, we all agreed that the prosecution did not provide enough evidence to show that any abuse had taken place. Although the mother of the children emotionally explained her side of the story, there was very little evidence to support it. Without proof, we could not rule in favor of the plaintiff in this case. We, as the jury, came back with a “not guilty” verdict based solely on the facts. While it was hard to listen to the various pieces of testimony in this case, the facts drove our decision. As a member of the jury, I had to keep an open mind and make my final vote because of what the facts and the laws told me. It was not an easy case in which to be a part of, but I did my civic duty to the best of my ability based on what was right and just as well as the facts presented.
Freeing one’s mind of bias and possibly inaccurate prior knowledge can be quite difficult, but it is the only way to approach jury duty. It’s also a great way to broaden one’s perspective when learning new things. However, it’s also important not to forget what’s right and just as well. While the facts are the facts and the law is the law, not all laws are right and just. Helping my students see this fact as they develop a growth mindset in the classroom is crucial. I try, each and every day, to remind my students of this very fact. I want them to understand how important it is to look at the facts but to not forget about analyzing the equity of the facts and laws involved when learning new information and developing as a student, person, and thinker. I want them to question everything. It’s been especially important as we’ve been digging into the play 12 Angry Men by Reginald Rose. I want the students to be able to understand the motivation of the eighth juror. Why did he do what he did? Why did he choose to stand alone in a room filled with 11 other men who all seemed to disagree with him? Why did he take the time to explain his point of view and perspective to a generally close-minded group of individuals? I want my students to see why Reginald Rose crafted this character the way he did. The eighth juror calmly reviewed the facts of the case presented by both sides and helped the other jurors see the truth through the veil of their biases. It is not an easy job for any of the men in the room, especially the eighth juror who has to deal with jurors yelling at him and accusing him of various things. However, change comes about because of the facts of the case and the courage involved in helping others to see what is right and just.
To help my students practice this same skill employed by members of a jury, I found a current event involving a court case to discuss in class. The case I used involved the Dakota Access Pipeline and the Native American groups trying to prevent it from going through their land. As we had already introduced this topic to the boys back in December, they had prior knowledge of the case. To begin our discussion, I had the students review what the issue was all about. I then had the students state their opinion and thoughts on the issue. Which side is “right?” We then discussed the court case that is still awaiting a final verdict from the judge. I had the students ask clarifying questions and share their thoughts on the case. Following this short discussion, I then explained to the students that in order to discuss this current event and the case like members of a jury, they need to free themselves of their judgements and preconceived notions. They need to look solely at the facts of the case. So, I handed the students a written explanation of the Trust Responsibility principle used by the Supreme Court to handle issues involving Native American groups and their dealings with the United States of America. We looked at the part that explained how most tribal land is still controlled by the American government despite the fact that the native groups have sovereignty within the boundaries of the reservations. I explained to the students how the judge in the case might be using this portion of the principle to make his final decision in the case, which is due this coming week. While the students seemed to understand the law and what it stated, they were outraged by it. “The Native Americans were here first. They are the only true Americans. We are all immigrants and Europeans. Why are we controlling their land? How is that fair?” one student asked. Another student responded, “This law is unjust and not right. Why does it seem that nobody cares about this issue?” My students were angry, like the men in our play. They were upset with the facts of the case. We had an amazing discussion. The students were using examples from history to support their claims as they discussed this case and the issue at hand. I was so impressed with how insightful and compassionate my students were being. Even though they understood the law and know that the judge has to rule with the law in mind, they were discussing the facts of the case and how unjust this whole case seems. I closed this discussion by praising the students for their phenomenal critical thinking. I told them, “One of the main reasons we discuss current events like this is to make you angry while also empowering you to want to make a difference. We want you to see how unjust some things in this world can be so that you will want to bring about change within the world. Perhaps one of you will go onto become a lawyer and fight for the people like these Native American groups who can’t always fight for themselves.” The students seemed enthralled and motivated. I can’t wait to see how they change the world in the coming years.
Getting my students to think like members of a jury while also getting them riled up helped them to understand the web Reginald Rose created in his play. I wanted them to see how difficult it can be to “see” the facts through the haze of issues, biases, and fairness. What is right isn’t always the law and what is the law isn’t always just. I want my students to see and understand this concept as we work through this amazing piece of literature created during a turbulent time in American history, just as we seem to be living during another tumultuous time in our country’s history. Being able to think like a juror while not forgetting everything else is the key to developing a true growth mindset and becoming a changemaker in our world.