Grades 4-6: Due Process Freedoms
Yertle the Turtle Mock Trial
by Gayle Mertz
Most students are familiar with Dr. Seuss's book Yertle the Turtle. Yertle is the dictatorial and oppressive king of a pond. He decides that his kingdom is too small and demands that the other turtles stand on each other's backs to build a high, then higher, then higher throne for the Mighty Yertle. Yertle's reign is toppled by a simple, innocent act committed by the lowest turtle in the stack.
This entertaining mock trial builds upon the original story by adding a new angle. Tell students that the personal plights of many unidentified characters in this story have been ignored. For example, one of the turtles in the middle of the stack of turtles is named Sadie. Sadie is quiet and well behaved. Because of her youth, Sadie has been told to listen to elders, not to disagree with them, and to cooperatively help them when asked to do so.
Sadie was frightened when she was asked to climb up to the top of the pile of turtles, and even more frightened when additional turtles began to climb onto her, in order to stack turtles higher and higher. But she obeyed. She didn't say a word. She was just a young turtle, and King Yertle was older and in a position of great authority. After the great stack of turtles collapsed, Sadie had a terrible shell ache. She didn't think about it too much until the pain persisted for several weeks. Then her mother took her to the local reptile doctor for an examination. The doctor was concerned and said that Sadie had a thin crack in her shell which may never heal properly. She told Sadie to rest and not to do any heavy work.
Sadie couldn't even walk to school. She was very sad. Her mother was angry and said that King Yertle had no right to tell a young turtle to bear the weight of other turtles on her shell. She said that she would sue the Turtle King and get enough money to take care of Sadie's medical problems. She also wanted to make sure that Yertle did not abuse other turtles again. Sadie's mother did not think that even a king could ask turtles to risk hurting themselves just to satisfy his need to be even greater.
After completing this lesson, students will:
- Understand the basic mechanics of a jury trial
- Recognize the responsibility of functioning as a juror.
Target Group: Intermediate and up
Time Needed: 1 week
Materials Needed: Yertle the Turtle by Dr. Seuss (Random House, Copyright renewed 1986, ISBN 1-394-80087-7); Student Handout (below); "courtroom" props; optional: character props, masks, or costumes
- Explain to students that they will participate in a mock trial of Yertle the Turtle. Read, or remind them of, the original story. Share the part of the strategy introduction that explains who Sadie is and what has happened to her. Tell students that Yertle is not only tyrannical, but also lazy and irresponsible. Since he didn't want to bother ensuring justice for his subjects by hearing their cases himself, he established an independent judiciary. And now he is going on trial. This will be a civil trial, however, so Yertle may not be put in jail. He may be required to pay for Sadie's actual damages as well as an additional amount for having violated her inalienable turtle rights.
- Photocopy and share the materials with students: "A Note to Jurors" and "How to Conduct Your Mock Trial." Assign students the roles there [ Roles for Students] and/or others they may choose to develop.
Gayle Mertz is director of the Law-Related Education Network in Boulder, Colorado, and recipient of the ABA Isidore Starr award for excellence in law-related education.