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High School Language Arts: Edgar Allen Poe on Trial


Common Core, Language Arts  


9, 10  

Students role play a trial in which the narrator of Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart” is accused of murder, using perhaps the only defense available to him: not guilty by reason of insanity. Using specific passages from the text, students try to prove whether the narrator is, as he claims, “not mad” and knew right from wrong at the moment of the crime, or whether the evidence shows otherwise.

Edgar Allen Poe

Edgar Allen Poe


CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.9-10.1: Cite strong and thorough textual evidence to support analysis of what the text says explicitly as well as inferences drawn from the text.

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.W.9-10.1: Write arguments to support claims in an analysis of substantive topics or texts, using valid reasoning and relevant and sufficient evidence.


Both orally and in writing, students will be able to defend an opinion about the guilt or lack thereof of the narrator of “The Tell-Tale Heart” by citing thorough and detailed textual evidence.

Students will understand the importance of reading a text closely to find all available evidence to support an opinion.

Both orally and in writing, students will be able to rebut an argument supporting an opinion different from their own, also based on textual evidence.


Assign students to read “The Tell-Tale Heart”. Note that the narrator claims that he is “not mad”. Provide a legal definition of insanity (i.e., see here). Ask students to note evidence for or against the insanity of the narrator. Assign student roles as follows: Judge (1), narrator (1), prosecution team (3-5), defense team including narrator (4-6), journalist (1-2), jury (remaining students). Prosecution and defense teams should communicate to prepare cases based on their readings.


  1. Classroom is arranged as a court and students take places. Jurors may be split into several juries to avoid large groups.
  2. Judge calls order to trial and states the charge, summarizing the story.
  3. Defense enters plea, presumably not guilty by reason of insanity.
  4. Prosecution argues case. Team may call witnesses, perhaps including the narrator (who is on the defense team, of course) and others (i.e., police officers, expert witness, ghost of the old man) played by members of their own team. Prosecutors ask questions and witnesses answer them using frequent quotations from the text to demonstrate that narrator was not insane at the time of the crime. Defense team may cross-examine witnesses. Judge requires parties to keep questions and answers relevant to the only evidence at hand, the story.
  5. Defense argues case, using a similar process. Jurors are required to take notes while hearing testimony.
  6. Prosecution and defense give closing arguments.
  7. Judge instructs juries, reminding them of the legal definition of insanity and that their deliberation must be based on evidence.
  8. Juries deliberate, each one trying to come to a unanimous decision internally; different juries may reach different verdicts.
  9. While juries deliberate, journalist(s) recap the trial, summarizing key evidence entered and testimony given, to the audience of all students not in the juries.Juries announce verdicts.
  10. Judge closes trial.
  11. Journalist(s) report verdict(s) and interview jury members, who must defend their decision.  


Writing assignment:

Students may choose to assume any of the roles that were assigned in the trial or may choose to write as themselves. Each student writes, from the point of view of the role chosen, his or her opinion of the sanity or insanity of the narrator, using and explaining textual evidence. Writing must include rebuttal of argument made by opposing side during the trial.



Notes from the original reading assignment can be assessed. Given the numerous roles, assessing the performance task can be challenging, but teacher could provide a general rubric based on use of textual evidence that is proper to one’s role. Writing assignment can be assessed for quality and coherence of argument, use of textual evidence, and rebuttal of opposing arguments.


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