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Justice by the People

Jury System Lesson Plans

Lesson 7: A History of Conflict Resolution and the Jury System



Students will gain an understanding of the modern jury system and historical methods of conflict resolution. They will compare and contrast the different trial methods of past and present, and analyze each as a way to resolve conflict. They will examine jury trials and the responsibility to decide the facts pertaining to key questions that jurors must answer. Then students will write a persuasive essay arguing for their preferred method of trial.

In a Lesson Extension, students will learn that the Seventh Amendment guarantees a right to a jury trial in civil cases in the federal courts. With a line-by-line analytical reading of the Sixth and Seventh Amendments, students will fully understand their meaning and application. They then will compare the historical context in which James Madison wrote the Seventh Amendment to the contemporary context in which the amendment is read and understood today.

Through the activities and discussions in all parts of this lesson and its extensions, students will come to appreciate the profound importance of the U.S. jury trial and how the United States guarantees the right to trial by jury.

Essential Question:
Write the question below on the board. Explain that the lesson activities are geared to help students explore and then respond to this question later during the Lesson Wrap-up.

What effect does the method of a trial have on the resolution to a conflict?

Skills Supporting Common Core State Standards for English Language Arts and History/Social Studies:

  • Identify key ideas and inferences along with text support
  • Determine the central idea
  • Determine the meaning of words
  • Determine point of view or purpose
  • Trace and evaluate arguments
  • Write arguments with support
  • Organize reasons and evidence in written argument
  • Write conclusions to support arguments
  • Use appropriate and precise language
  • Trace and evaluate arguments as per grade reading standards
  • Participate in group discussions
  • Prepare for discussions
  • Pose and respond to questions
  • Review ideas from more than one perspective
  • Distinguish claims through reason and evidence
Lesson Duration:
45 minutes for the main activity; 15 minutes for Lesson Extension 1; 25 minutes for Lesson Extension 2



Introduce Trials Within a Historical Context
• On the board, write the word ordeal and ask students to provide examples of an ordeal, based on their experiences. Follow the same procedure with the words oath and combat. Explain that in history people have been tried by ordeal, oath, and combat, in addition to the U.S. system of trial by jury as required in the Constitution. Allow for students to speculate about what these kinds of trials, plus the U.S. system of trial by jury, involve. Then provide the following historical context for each kind of trial before engaging in the lesson activities that follow:

Trial by Ordeal: A trial by ordeal was common in the Middle Ages. Accused persons underwent dangerous tests, even torture, because people believed that the innocent would not be hurt or that their wounds would heal miraculously. Ask students if they can think of examples of trial by ordeal in colonial America. (They might suggest the Salem witch trials.)

Trial for Oath: In a trial by oath, people accused of a crime only had to swear, or take an oath, that they were innocent (unless others swore against them). To lie under oath would be to risk being banished from the community. 

Trial by Combat: In Europe during the Middle Ages, disputing parties could settle their disagreement by combat. They could either fight their own battles or choose a champion to fight for them. You might take a quick survey to see which choice students would make if faced with a trial by combat.

Trial by Jury: Americans are granted the right to trial by jury by the Sixth Amendment (criminal trials) and Seventh Amendment (civil trials) to the United States Constitution. In a jury trial, lawyers for the prosecution and defense present evidence to a jury of citizens who collectively determine the guilt or innocence of the accused.

Activity Directions (Part 1):
• Tell students that through simulations, they will experience what a trial by ordeal, oath, and combat are like. In preparation, distribute the Comparing Trial Systems from History Reproducible and a blank sheet of paper. For each form of trial that will be simulated, students should take notes on the blank paper about what they observe and the verdict that is reached. They will use these notes in a group activity when all the simulations are completed; in a Lesson Extension, they will have the opportunity to complete the chart. 

• Point out that in a trial, the court always keeps a complete written record of the proceedings, as well as a transcript of everything that is said. Elicit from students any examples they may have seen of this procedure in the media, and why the transcripts are produced. 

• Explain that in each simulation there will be an accused and an accuser. Have one student act as the accuser and three other students stand as the accused. Have the class come to a consensus on a school rule that has been broken, such as cheating on a test. The accuser should state that the other three students broke the agreed-upon rule. The accused students should deny the charge.

• Now, try this case by using the directions that follow. In preparation, first place three slips of paper, two with an X marked on them, in the hat. Place the towel in an accessible location.

1. Trial by Ordeal
Have the accused students draw a slip of paper out of a hat. Two of the slips have an X drawn on them, while one slip is blank. Tell the students who draw the slips with X’s that they have been found guilty. The student with the blank slip is innocent. Write the verdict for each of the accused on the board. Then ask students to connect this experience with the history of trial by ordeal discussed earlier. 

2. Trial by Oath
Have each of the accused students swear to his or her innocence before a council of “nobles.” Then have each of the accused students choose two supporters to testify under oath about the student’s good character. Before the witnesses testify, tell them that if the nobles find one of the accused parties guilty, they will punish any witness who supported that person. Have the nobles vote and give their verdict for the accused. Write that verdict on the board. Then ask students to connect this experience with the history of trial by oath discussed earlier. 

3. Trial by Combat
Have a student who represents “the local lord of the classroom” choose one champion for the class, and the three accused students choose another champion to compete on their behalf in a boundary tug contest. Draw two lines on the floor with chalk, about five feet apart. Between the lines have the two contestants face each other, with right toes touching and left feet firmly planted to the back for balance. Have the contestants grasp a towel and try to pull their opponent across one of the lines. Record the verdict on the board. Then ask students to connect this experience with the history of trial by combat discussed earlier.

• With the simulations completed, break the class into three groups and assign each group one of the types of trials (ordeal, oath, combat). Have the group members share notes they recorded during their assigned trial. In particular, have them share their observation notes about the trial method. Groups should focus on the following questions:

Were the observations consistent among the group members?

Did the students all hear and see the same thing during their trial? If they didn’t, why do group members think that might be the case?

What were some advantages or disadvantages to this type of trial, and how did they affect the outcome?

• Have a spokesperson from each group report to the full class about the verdict and the group members’ observations. Afterward, ask each group to take questions from the rest of the class, especially about additional observations from students outside of the group. Group members can take turns providing responses.
• Conclude this activity by reconvening the class. Elicit from students their thoughts about why verdicts under each method were the same or different. Have students compare the advantages and disadvantages in the three types of trials.

Activity Directions (Part 2):
• Explain that Americans are granted the right to trial by jury by the Sixth Amendment (criminal trials) and Seventh Amendment (civil trials) to the United States Constitution. In a jury trial, lawyers for the prosecution and defense present evidence to a jury of citizens who collectively determine the guilt or innocence of the accused. Juries have the responsibility to decide the facts pertaining to key questions. Have students reassemble in their groups from earlier or work in smaller groupings. Have them write down the following six key jury questions after you write them on the board. Suggest that they keep these questions as a resource for homework you will assign at the end of class. The questions are:

WHO (is responsible for the act committed?)
WHAT (was the act committed, what happened?)
WHEN (at what time did it occur?)
WHERE (at what location did it occur?)
WHY (what might be the motivation or reason for the act committed?)
HOW (in what way was the act committed?)

Have each group discuss the six key jury questions for about 10 minutes. During that time, visit with each group to check on their understanding. Have a spokesperson from each summarize the group’s findings to the class about whether these questions cover all the basic information jurors need in order to decide a case. As needed, explain that juries must listen closely to the judge’s description of the law and apply the law to the facts. If jurors are presented with conflicting facts, it is the jury’s responsibility to decide which interpretation or set of evidence is more convincing, based on the credibility of the witnesses. Also, explain that how honest or reliable a witness appears determines credibility. 

Lesson Extension Alert: To further explore trial by ordeal, oath, and combat, along with trial by jury, see Lesson Extension 1. 

Lesson Extension Alert: To have students analyze the Sixth and Seventh Amendments and then distinguish between criminal and civil cases, see Lesson Extension 2.

• In preparation for homework you will assign by the end of class, distribute the Choose Your Method of Trial Reproducible, and allow time for students to complete “Part 1: Make Your Choice.”   

Wrap-up With the Essential Question
Return to the Essential Question that was written on the board at the beginning of the lesson.

What effect does the method of a trial have on the resolution to a conflict?

Open a discussion in which students respond to this question, based on their class experience. Encourage students to support their responses with text and details from the Constitution and the Bill of Rights.

As homework, assign Part 2: Defend Your Choice of the Choose Your Method of Trial Reproducible. Review the following strategies of argumentative writing with the class:

  1. Develop both sides of the issue.
  2. Offer several claims for your side while acknowledging valid counterclaims from the opposing point of view.
  3. Give the reader another perspective to consider on the topic.
  4. Cite data and evidence that support your point of view.
  5. Have a strong, logical, and convincing conclusion.

Remind the students that argumentative writing is like a debate on paper and that both sides are represented by facts, evidence, and relevant support. Explain that students need to think of themselves as both prosecutor and defense attorney. They must review their facts, cite evidence, and argue their viewpoint and opinion while including valid points from the opposite point of view. Let them know that there are reminder essay points on the homework sheet.

Have students refer to the completed Comparing Trial Systems from History Reproducible as they craft their essays. Suggest that students also compare the ideas and details covered in their argument to the six key questions for juries that they discussed in class groups. Even though these questions pertain to jury trials, they may help students decide whether they have included the best material and enough supporting details to persuade a reader of his or her trial choice.

Lesson Extensions:
(1) After students have experienced simulations of trial by ordeal, oath, and combat, plus engaged in an activity related to trial by jury, have them work with a partner to review all four of these kinds of trials by completing the Comparing Trial Systems from History Reproducible. For each form of trial, partners should discuss and agree on two positive and two negative attributes. Remind students to consider the concepts of fairness, impartiality, and bias that they learned about in Lesson 6. Afterward, review one type of trial at a time by having the student pairs share the two advantages and disadvantages they listed.  
(2) Explain that a jury guarantees people in the United States the right to a trial in both civil and criminal cases. Civil cases involve individuals arguing over private matters, such as agreements, money owed, and property. Criminal cases involve a crime against society, such as theft and drunk driving. Students might want to cite examples of civil and criminal trials that they are aware of from books, film, or television, as well as civil or criminal trials reported in the media.

Further explain that when the framers wrote the Bill of Rights (the first 10 Amendments to the Constitution), they understood how important it was to have a fair court system. In writing the Seventh Amendment, they made sure that the right to have a trial by jury was a fundamental law of the country.

Have a volunteer read aloud a printed or online version of the Sixth Amendment (see Materials for the document link). Ask that student to elicit from classmates the specific conditions required for a jury trial under this amendment. Invite the volunteer reader to reread the amendment as needed so that the students can check that they have named all the conditions and details as noted in each of the amendment phrases.

Follow the same procedure for the Seventh Amendment as you did for the Sixth Amendment.  

Then, write the list below on the board. Working in small groups, have members take turns explaining why the items on the list are examples of a situation that requires either a civil or criminal trial. Suggest that groups refer to the text of the Seventh Amendment as a reference. Visit groups and guide them through any questions they have in making these distinctions. If unsure of what any of the listed items represents, encourage groups to come up with a possible real-life scenario that would produce the outcome and lead to a trial.   

a.    Owing back rent (civil)
b.    Trespassing (criminal)
c.    Shoplifting (criminal)
d.    Nondelivery of promised goods (civil)
e.    Nondelivery of promised services (civil)
f.    Vandalism (criminal)
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