Students put the book ‘Light in the Forest’ on trial

January 4, 2011

By Christopher Huber

Prosecutor Carly Rosenbaum (left) questions witness Ashmi Chakraborty as judge Tiffany Tran looks on during a mock trial at Pine Lake Middle School Dec.1. By Christopher Huber

Pine Lake Middle School student Laurel Buck could not have had a better mentor for her eighth-grade humanities project.

Buck played a defense attorney as part of teacher Anne Kiemle’s mock trial project. As she prepared questions and did research, Buck got some expert advice from her father Ted Buck, a local defense attorney.

“It was really helpful,” Laurel said. “I would ask him things about this trial and he helped me slim down my questions.”

Rather than write a literary essay, Laurel and her fellow eighth-graders put the thesis of “The Light in the Forest,” a district-required novel reading, on trial. After reading the book over about three weeks, the students took on roles of lawyers, witnesses and main characters in the book.

“We’ve never done anything like this before,” Laurel said. “It really helped everyone understand the characters.”

“The Light in the Forest,” by Conrad Richter, takes place in colonial times, right after the proclamation of 1763. Indians capture 4-year-old John Cameron Butler in a raid on the Pennsylvania frontier. Warrior Cuyloga adopts him and raises him with the name True Son. True Son completely adapts to and accepts life as an Indian and even forgets what life was like with his white family.

When he is 15, the Lenni Lenape people sign a treaty with the white men and return their captives. True Son then has to relearn everything about his former life, including his biological family’s language, dress and behavior. He manages to escape the Butler family home and reunites with his Indian family. But he subsequently betrays the Lenni Lenape, forcing them to disown him. He ends up caught between two families, dealing with irreconcilable conflict between the two worlds.

Laurel and her fellow defense attorneys spent about an hour a night at home preparing questions and digging deep for ideas and facts in the story. They were defending True Son against the charge of treason.

Our defense “kinda showed what True Son was going through,” Laurel said. “It showed how the whites treated him. He had no feeling of connection to the whites whatsoever.

“It taught us how different people act towards each other,” she added. “It was a real eye-opener. It also showed us the true meaning of family.”

Laurel and Melanie DeJong said analyzing the book through acting out the characters put a real-life application to the novel’s themes and ideas. It helped them answer the bigger question that Kiemle strives for them to understand by the end of the year — why can’t we all just get along?

“It helped us tune into the book and actually enjoy it,” Laurel said.

The Issaquah School District requires eighth-graders to read three novels throughout the school year, Kiemle said.

“They liked it better this year than they liked it last year,” Kiemle said. “They still didn’t like the book, but they liked how they got to make sense of it.”

But regardless of who liked it or not, Kiemle and students said doing a mock trial sure beats writing an essay. It gets them thinking more deeply about the main issues of the book, like the definition of family, conflict between people groups, etc.

“I like it because it’s different than just having to write an essay,” said Melanie, a juror. “It’s also a different level of thinking.”

In Kiemle’s class they read five books, and she likes to use more engaging methods than traditional essay writing to exercise students’ analytical skills.

“I don’t have them write essays on books. I think it kills the book,” she said. “We did write an essay, we just did it by acting it out.”

Kiemle, who has conducted a “The Light in the Forest” mock trial for three years, said she plans to do the project again next year.

“Eighth-graders are incredible,” Kiemle said. “They love to think deeply. You just have to create an environment where they see what’s in it for them.”

Christopher Huber: 392-6434, ext. 242, or chuber@isspress.com. Comment at www.issaquahpress.com.

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