Order in the court, where schoolchildren are jurors. Schoolchildren in Chicago see how the US court system works through the fairy tale `Rumpelstiltskin.' The Cook County Circuit Court's program is one spark in a national explosion of efforts to teach legal procedures and issues.
Chicago — The trial of Rumpelstiltskin v. the Queen is about to begin and the courtroom is abuzz. In an unusual move, the judge has drafted all the spectators into the jury. As the 100 or so jurors look on, the first witness takes the stand. ``Please state your full name,'' says the attorney to the plaintiff.
``Is that your full name?''
The case is puzzling, in part because of the issues involved and in part because not all is as it seems in the courtroom. The main characters are young actors, the jurors are elementary school students at the Diego Community Academy on Chicago's West Side, and the case recalls a well-known fairy tale.
``I read the book,'' one young juror confides later. ``And the Queen was supposed to win.''
But in this play, the ending is ambiguous. The idea: teach schoolchildren how the court system works by reshaping a familiar story. The program by the Cook County Circuit Court is one small part in an explosion of efforts around the country to teach legal issues and procedures to elementary schoolchildren.
On the witness stand, Rumpelstiltskin is telling a convincing story. The queen, a poor miller's daughter at the time, agreed to give him her first-born child if he would spin straw into gold.
But later, when the child was born and Rumpelstiltskin came to collect his prize, the queen refused to hand over the baby.
``Is that fair?'' Rumpelstiltskin's attorney asks the schoolchildren.
After calling one other witness, the attorney rests her case. And the queen testifies that, yes, she did make the promise to the diminutive wood elf.
But, she adds, she was confused and under pressure at the time. The king was interested in marrying her, but only if she could spin the straw into gold, as her father had claimed. If she failed, her father risked royal displeasure.
Each side finished, the judge tells the jurors they must decide who is the most right. The children return to their classrooms to debate the case.
``We're not trying to train children to be little lawyers,'' explains Al Sterling, director of the Chicago public schools' Adopt-a-School office. But ``we want people to understand that ... the system is fair.''
The program, supported by the Adopt-a-School office and featuring the Journeymen Theater Ensemble, was tested this fall in several Chicago schools. It is the latest effort in the rapidly growing field of law-related education. A study published in March 1985 found this branch to be one of the fastest-growing areas in social sciences.
``The whole area developed in the late '60s,'' says James E. Phillips, an attorney and head of the Ohio State Bar Association's acclaimed education effort. ``It's important that people understand the legal system.''
Like Chicago, other cities and states are using familiar stories such as ``Goldilocks and the Three Bears'' and ``Alice in Wonderland'' to teach elementary schoolchildren about the courts, says Charlotte Anderson, staff director of the American Bar Association's special committee on youth education for citizenship. A number of states have instituted mock trial programs in their secondary schools, where students play the various roles in the courtroom.
Back in the class of Brenda Jones, a sixth-grade teacher, the would-be jurors are voting on the trial. Twenty favor Rumpelstiltskin; eight side with the Queen.
``I voted for Rumpelstiltskin because the lady, the Queen, she promised her baby,'' says Eddie Jenkins.
``She shouldn't have promised it if she didn't want to keep the promise,'' he adds.
Elizabeth Villanueva disagrees.
``I don't think the judge would think he [Rumpelstiltskin] would be suitable for a parent,'' she says, ``because a mother is needed in a child's life.''
The debate continues for several minutes until it's time for lunch.
The key question is how teachers will reinforce the legal issues the children have been exposed to, Ms. Anderson says. Some discuss the reasons for classroom rules and procedures.
``We're concerned with developing young people who are interested in participating in our democratic way of justice,'' Anderson says. ``It's not simply black and white, right and wrong. And I think that's important for children to learn - the complexity of problems.''
That lesson doesn't seem immediately grasped by the younger children here.
``If you make a promise, you should keep it'' - that's the lesson third-grader Latara McGee says she learned.
Even the older children initially react this way, although when pressed they draw more sophisticated conclusions.
The system is fair, says sixth-grader Melanie Stringer. ``Since each has a lawyer, then they're equal.''
Adds classmate Efrain Agosto, who favors Rumpelstiltskin: ``The Queen does have a point there that he [the baby] should be with his mother because he can get the right proper education and he'd become a prince. ... But still, he [Rumpelstiltskin] has got more against her in that case.''