Against a backdrop of fact and fiction, aided by actors and real attorneys, Lewiston-Porter Senior High School students learned a practical lesson in "rights and responsibilities" during a mock trial staged in the school auditorium last week.
The plight of Abigail Williams, the chief accuser during the witch-hunt hysteria of 1692 and a lead character in Arthur Miller's drama "The Crucible," came alive as Lisa Vitrano, a professional actress from Studio Arena Theatre, took the stage in period costume. She was joined onstage by Niagara Falls City Court Judge Mark A. Violante, three local attorneys, a jury of 12 juniors and six other 11th-graders in various roles.
Ms. Williams was a historical precursor to Sen. Joseph McCarthy and the Communist witch hunts of the 1950s. Ms. Williams' accusations helped contribute to the hanging of 17 innocent victims.
The 11th grade is learning about the impact of power abuse -- then and now.
The entire 11th grade attended the performance -- a first in its scope for the school.
"I think this is terrific," said spectator R. Nils Olsen, a Lew-Port School Board member. "This is a great way to bring literature to life."
The three-phase project has been funded through a grant from the New York State Council on the Arts' Empire State Partnership, and produced in conjunction with the Castellani Art Museum of Niagara University.
Students studied "The Crucible" and the U.S. Constitution in the first phase of the project, with an eye toward the overarching theme of "rights and responsibilities," according to Frank S. Scelsa, the English teacher coordinating the project. This umbrella theme applies across the curriculum through English literature, social studies, art and criminal justice, he added.
Phase two was the mock trial, whereby Ms. Williams was charged with eight counts of murder in the second degree. With guidance from the professional attorneys, the students wrote the opening and closing statements and conducted the interrogation.
A randomly selected jury of juniors took nearly four hours to find Ms. Williams guilty of second-degree murder of one victim and guilty of manslaughter on all other seven counts. She received life imprisonment with the possibility of parole after 14 years. The defense quickly filed an appeal.
"We had two assistant district attorneys, another local attorney and a local judge from the community who taught the students how the court system works," said Sandra H. Olsen, director of the Castellani Art Museum. "I thought this was excellent. The goal is for the school and cultural organizations to partner so that they can take a real interdisciplinary approach . . . It helps teachers to help students with the new learning standards and it means art is taught throughout the curriculum and not just in art classes."
The grant money is awarded to cultural organizations that work in partnership with school districts for the purpose of assisting students in mastering the new learning standards by using fine arts as a tool by which students can master other curricular subject areas.
"I give Lew-Port credit for doing this, because it means changing a great deal of the structure of teaching," Mrs. Olsen added.
"I thought this was an excellent experience for our students," said Walter S. Polka, Lew-Port superintendent. "This is very comprehensive. It really got the students totally involved."
Phase three includes class discussions about the event, focusing on the trial's issues. The students then will write a major critical essay based on the theme of "rights and responsibilities," as revealed in the mock trial.
"The thing that connects it all is abuse of power," said Scelsa.
Amy Mills, a junior in the auditorium audience, was impressed with the mock trial.
"It's more interesting to watch this, instead of just reading the play," she said. "They (those onstage for the trial) really seemed to have their whole hearts in it. And I thought it was nice of the judge and lawyers to volunteer their time to do this."
"Everything occurs in the book, but nothing happens as a result," said Brook cq McIntyre, a senior who was sketching the trial for art class. "The book doesn't follow through, by punishing the person who started it (the witch hunts)."
The Empire State Partnerships grant also includes other components at Lew-Port for the 11th grade classes and another for the 10th grade. Plans for a spring workshop on the teaching of "Macbeth" and an anticipated full-length production of the play are under way.
In addition, a series of school visits by actors portraying historic figures such as Thomas Jefferson will take place throughout the school year and will culminate in a "Meeting of the Minds," a public discussion on stage between the characters about ethical, political and social issues relevant to modern times.