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The Fairy Tale Trials: 
Bringing Courtroom Dramas to Life

The jury agonized for days over what seemed to be an open-and-shut case: A young boy named Jack robbed and ultimately killed a giant. Now Jack was on trial for first-degree murder. But in Julie Miller Romeo’s (MS89) lively classroom at Northwestern University’s Center for Talent Development (CTD), the Fairy Tale Trial cases are complex and often passionately debated. Was his crime pre-meditated or selfdefense? And why was Jack being tried in an adult court, anyway?

“It was the perfect time to emphasize the real challenge groups have in coming to an agreement,” says Romeo, who reluctantly declared a hung jury so they could move on to an abuse and neglect case involving children named Hansel and Gretel. “They were frustrated and angry they couldn’t make a decision. But their commitment to the issues and to each other was compelling.”

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Developed in the 1980s to bring comprehensive law education to the Chicago Public Schools, the award-winning Fairy Tale Trials use law, literature, and theater to explore the rich moral dilemmas at the core of five cleverly re-scripted fairy tales.

Thousands of students, parents, and educators have wrestled with the courtroom dramas over the last three decades in CTD classes, schools, libraries, community centers, judicial conferences, bar association meetings, and other settings. Now Romeo is using the Trials to help forge homeschool–public school partnerships, ultimately bringing the magic of project-based, child-centered learning back into homes and to families.

“The Trials get people thinking critically and interacting, from the courtroom to the classroom, to the living room,” says Romeo, a teaching artist, director, and mother of two homeschooled teenagers. “The real value comes from the discussions that happen around the dinner table, once class is over.”

Created by Romeo, the late Second City comedy writer Mary Siewert Scruggs, and Chicago attorney and educator Dan Coyne, the Fairy Tale Trials introduce children between the ages of 8 and 14 to legendary characters who are grappling with real-life problems and seeking justice in the American legal system.

Rumpelstiltskin sues the Queen for breach of contract. Prince Charming petitions the Kingdom to withdraw Sleeping Beauty’s life support. And Little Red Riding Hood has her license suspended after she’s caught drinking and driving with a teenage wolf.

The students assume the varied roles of lawyer, witness, juror, and storyteller. In the final session, they stage an informal performance and collaborate as jurors, where they question, probe, and challenge each other to make a decision in each case.

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Initially, the Trials were performed in Cook County courtrooms by a professional touring children’s theater ensemble featuring Northwestern students, including alumnus Stephen Colbert (Comm ’86) who played the miller in Rumplestiltskin v. the Queen. But Romeo began reshaping her work after noticing that Fairy Trials were more effective when the children performed the plays themselves.

Using CTD as a laboratory and springboard, Romeo created an interdisciplinary curriculum that features speaking and writing activities based on Aristotle’s Rhetorical Triangle, or strategies involving logic, emotions, and character.

“CTD helped moved it so the students were actually doing the program, rather than just receiving it,” says Romeo, who first began teaching Fairy Tale Trials at CTD in 1999. “Then I was able to develop teaching strategies to deepen the impact of the work and bring it to widely diverse groups.”

Those audiences include adults, says Coyne, who developed the law curriculum and has trained Chicago Public Schools’ teachers. In those sessions, “the focus was not the law or teaching literature but on making a classroom active,” Coyne says.

Romeo’s latest vision involves training children to deliver the Fairy Trials to other students, a pilot project currently underway with the New Jersey Homeschool Association. Ultimately, she hopes home-schoolers will act as fairy tale foot soldiers, offering the curriculum to schools, libraries, shelters, and at-risk children as part of service learning and as a way to build empathy and leadership skills. Families are the final frontier for Romeo and the cutting edge of her work.

“Fairy tales are about families in all their brokenness and struggles,” Romeo says. “They almost always begin in poverty with a missing parent and somehow end happily. Instead of taking them into the woods where magic makes everything better, we take them to the courts where justice happens to make everything better.”

For Romeo, that’s a happy ending.

Written by Julie Deardorff for The Inquiry - 2018
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