Showcase: Leaders on Trial Video Project

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This assignment is a good example of getting students to do something novel with historical content. It combines creative drama and critical thinking with research and video production skills, asking the students to produce a short video in which they put an historical leader on trial.

Overview

Ancient world history is often a parade of names and events that aren’t covered by the textbook in enough detail to be very engaging. This video project asks students to choose one leader from history and research their accomplishments. After the students research the figure, they are responsible creating a video in which that leader is accused of a crime and put on trial – similar to a scene from Law and Order or any other courtroom drama. In order to do this, students submit three assignments that comprise their final grade:

  • An indictment of the figure for some crime. This might be negligence, abuse of power, or crimes against humanity.
  • The script for the video in which they synthesize their research into arguments for the figure’s innocence or guilt. Their script must incorporate historical facts from their research, and it must include arguments by both the prosecution and the defense.
  • The video itself. It should be 6-8 minutes in length, incorporate appropriate props, and convincingly portray the scenario envisioned by the indictment and script.
Rationale

This video doesn’t work the traditional history skills, but it’s a nice way to enliven the content while challenging students to look at historical issues from multiple perspectives.

  • The research process requires students to take responsibility for the content.
  • The indictment is perhaps the most challenging part of the assignment, because it asks students to think from a certain perspective. They’re looking for ways to accuse a given leader of a crime, and this isn’t as straightforward for some rulers (Genghis Khan) as it is others (Pericles). The indictment requires students to evaluate history, not just recall it.
  • The script challenges students’ rhetorical faculties. They must be persuasive, but they’re applying this skill in a dramatic context rather than a traditional writing task.
  • The video lets students have a lot of fun, appeals especially to interpersonal and bodily-kinesthetic learners, and works on students’ technological literacies.
Reflection

This project is simple, but the thinking required is so high-level that the teacher really needs to scaffold the kids. The first draft of my handout (link above) does a poor job of suggesting possible crimes and emphasizing how students will need to think about the leader from different perspectives. It also puts the indictment before the research, which obviously doesn’t make sense of students are supposed to be making the indictment based on the research. So long as these caveats are addressed, though, this project lets students’ creativity really shine while still teaching them “the facts.”

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