Placing Characters on Trial

Adapting the Text
Cumulative Activity
Grades 6–12
Language Arts, History, Civics
Small Group, Entire Class, Research, Oral Presentation


  • Students will gain a greater understanding of the moral implications of the characters’ actions.
  • Students will judge the characters’ actions citing evidence from the novel itself.
  • Students will learn the basics of the jury trial system taking on roles as lawyers, defendants, plaintiffs, jury members, and judges.


This activity works well for many books, but it especially lends itself to The Grapes of Wrath because there are many instances where characters are breaking the law along with instances where characters are acting within the law but in questionable ways (such as the way the police treat squatters outside of Bakersfield). The classroom will be converted into a courtroom (as elaborate or simple as time permits). Students will begin to understand the legal system and its implications. Even though this is a fun activity, the trial should not be played out as a comical activity.

Students (with various roles) will be divided into groups according to the “crimes” they will be trying in court.

Relevant Sections

  • Muley Graves: Chapter 6
  • Squatters Camp: Chapter 20
  • Hooper Ranch: Chapter 26

Materials Needed/Preparation

  • The Grapes of Wrath
  • Familiarity with Basic Courtroom Proceedings external link. Teachers should review this website (via LCD projector, computer lab, or hard copies) with the students so that they will have a rudimentary understanding of legal proceedings.

Estimated Time

This will vary greatly depending on the class, its level, and size. Generally:

  • One class period for an introduction to the legal system and the roles involved.
  • Students will need to meet in their small groups to prepare their cases—at least one class period.
  • Two class periods for the various trials from each group.


  • The students will break into groups based on the “crime” being tried in court. Groups should divide their duties and, in writing, prepare for their cases. Cases could include, but are not limited, to:
  • ~Muley Graves: trespassing and destruction of property
  • ~Tom’s breaking parole
  • ~Casy taking the fall in the squatters' camp outside Bakersfield
  • ~Intimidation and abuse of power by police throughout the novel
  • ~The murder of Casy
  • ~Tom and the death of the man outside Hooper Ranch (murder or self-defense?)
  • ~An anti-trust trial against the Growers Associations
  • The judge for each trial can either be the teacher or a responsible student.
  • Each trial group will be comprised of:
  • ~Prosecuting attorney
  • ~Defense attorney
  • ~Plaintiff
  • ~Defendant
  • ~Witnesses (a caveat—it would be permissible to have Lennie and Curley’s wife, even after their deaths, to be able to take the witness stand.)
  • The jury for each trial will be the rest of the classroom audience.
  • All trial groups should use the novel as their source for all claims and accusations. Quoting from the novel is encouraged. Basically, the trial should proceed as follows:
  • The prosecution and defense lawyers will make their opening statements—in essence, what they hope to prove during the trial.
  • The prosecuting lawyer will call the accused to the stand and question him or her.
  • The defense lawyer will then cross examine and question the accused.
  • Each lawyer will then call witnesses to the stand. In turn, each lawyer can cross examine and question the other lawyer’s witnesses.
  • After questioning, both lawyers will give closing arguments to the jury. This closing should, in essence, be a persuasive speech to convince the jury of his/her arguments to convict or acquit the defendant.
  • The jury (student audience) will deliberate and present their verdict to the judge and the court.
  • The judge will then free the defendant (if acquitted) or sentence the defendant (if found guilty).

Post Activity/Takeaways/Follow-up

Post Activity

  • Students can write their brief reactions to each trial and share with the class.
  • Students can also hold a post-interview “press conference” and ask questions of the lawyers.


  • This activity helps create a stronger connection to the events in the novel while introducing students to the process of a trial by jury.
  • This activity reinforces students’ abilities in critical thinking and argumentative writing/speaking.


  • Teachers can have students write an evaluation of the project and what they have learned.
  • Teachers can have students bring to class “current events” about recent/current trials.


  • During trial preparation, teachers should ensure that students are on task, taking the project seriously, and are cooperating with each other.
  • After the trials, teachers can grade students based on preparation, execution, persuasiveness of arguments, evidence, and level of seriousness.

Common Core State Standards Met

  • Reading Standards for Literature 6-12
  • ~Key Ideas and Details: 1, 2, 3
  • ~Craft and Structure: 4, 5, 6
  • ~Integration of Knowledge and Ideas: 8
  • ~Range of Reading and Level of Text Complexity: 10
  • Reading Standards for Informational Text 6-12
  • ~Key Ideas and Details: 1, 2, 3
  • ~Craft and Structure: 4, 5, 6
  • ~Integration of Knowledge and Ideas: 7, 8
  • ~Range of Reading and Level of Text Complexity: 10
  • Writing Standards 6-12
  • ~Text Types and Purposes: 1, 2, 3
  • ~Production and Distribution of Writing: 4, 5
  • ~Research to Build and Present Knowledge: 7, 8, 9
  • ~Range of Writing: 10
  • Speaking and Listening Standards 6-12
  • ~Comprehension and Collaboration: 1, 2
  • ~Presentation and Knowledge of Ideas: 4
  • Language Standards 6-12
  • ~Conventions of Standard English: 1, 2, 3
  • ~Knowledge of Language: 3
  • ~Vocabulary Acquisition and Use: 4, 5, 6
  • Reading Standards for Literacy in History/Social Studies 6-12
  • ~Key Ideas and Details: 1, 2
  • ~Craft and Structure: 4, 5
  • ~Integration of Knowledge and Ideas: 8
  • ~Range of Reading and Level of Text Complexity: 10
  • Writing Standards for Literacy in History/Social Studies, Science, and Technical Subjects 6-12
  • ~Text Types and Purposes: 1, 2
  • ~Production and Distribution of Writing: 4, 5
  • ~Research to Build and Present Knowledge: 7, 8, 9
  • ~Range of Writing: 10

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