When it comes to writing with style a lot of students defer to clichéd topics.
They might write about a first love and use sweeping language. They might write about a time when they felt defeated (like from being cut from a sports team) and have a piece rife with hyperbole. Or they might describe their favorite holiday and use a sentimental (aka sappy and underdeveloped) tone. However, I don’t blame the students. Many times the reason for maudlin writing is because of the prompts we provide them. In their defense, it is challenging to write about a favorite memory without sounding contrived or unsophisticated. Give them a more meaningful reason for writing and it will become more purposeful. Having students write opening and closing arguments for existing court cases is a great way to get students more engaged in their writing because they are writing to save someone’s life.
One of the most interesting closing arguments is Clarence Darrow’s closing defense for the Leopold and Loeb case. Prior to reading, provide students with background about the case itself. Tell them that Darrow was attempting to get the boys life in prison and help them avoid the death penalty. With this in mind, ask the students what they would anticipate him arguing in the closing argument and how he might construct it (in regards to tone, structure, rhetorical appeals, etc). Then, give them excerpted sections of the closing argument (it took Darrow seven hours to deliver because of its length) and evaluate to what extent their predictions held true. Also, have them evaluate the style of the argument and how it helps him achieve his goal.
Studying Darrow’s closing arguments sets students up for writing their own closing argument. You can have them study and research an existing case or have them draft a closing argument for a created “trial” of a character. For example, the students could put Beowulf on trial for his actions or the Montague and Capulet’s on trial for the death of Romeo and Juliet. Require them to consider their audience and how they can best persuade that audience to agree with them.
Another suggestion is to have students draft the opening arguments of a case. In many cases the opening argument is just as important because it sets the tone for the trial. What evidence needs to be provided at the start of the trial and what needs to be withheld is a difficult decision for students to make. Furthermore, the opening argument relies heavily on the persona of the speaker. What identity should they try to create for themselves through the opening argument? Again, teachers could ask students to write the opening argument for an existing case or a fictionalized trial of a character. Some strong opening arguments for actual cases that you might use as models are the opening statement for the impeachment trial of Bill Clinton or the opening arguments for the Timothy McVeigh trial.