Creating the Timeline

Kevin Svitana, Otterbein College and Scott Bair, The Ohio State University
Initial Publication Date: September 4, 2008


This activity familiarizes students with the people and events leading up to the Woburn Toxic Trial, the shenanigans of the attorneys during the trial, and the aftermath of the trial. Students need to read the book "A Civil Action" and view the movie during which they develop a timeline of events and a list of people. These materials can be used later to help conduct a mock trial.

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Learning Goals

The main goals are for students to become familiar with the chronology of events before and during the Woburn Toxic Trial and to become familiar with the people involved in the trial and in the events leading up to the trial.

Context for Use

This module is intended to complement reading "A Civil Action" and reviewing the movie so students have a uniform foundation to begin in-depth evaluation of the trial issues and overarching questions. Instructors are encouraged to make students aware of the "Hollywood" aspects of the movie, the more comprehensive treatment of issues, characters, and themes in Harr's text, and the additional resources and references to supplement Harr's book within this website.

Description and Teaching Materials

Copies of "A Civil Action," both the book and movie, are required for this module. Other useful resources presented in the website including "Who's Who in the Woburn Toxic Trial," a general chronology of events, and excerpts of trial testimony and newspaper articles.

Teaching Notes and Tips

I (Scott) typically divide my class into groups as we read the book. I assign one group to keep track of dates using index cards. They meet prior to each class when we are reading the book to synthesize their list of dates. Another group is assigned to keep track of people. (It is difficult to keep track of all the attorneys and who represents who.) A third group is assigned to keep track of locations. All this information is then be tabulated in WORD or EXCEL and distributed for later use and reference.

One strategy I use to develop student discussion is to have students describe their impressions of specific characters involved in the trial. I also ask students hypothetical questions such as 'Why would you rather go to a Red Sox game with Jerry Facher or with Jan Schlichtmann?' or 'Why would you rather listen to a lecture given by Anne Anderson or one given by Judge Skinner?' or 'Why would you rather go out to dinner with Jonathan Harr or John Travolta?'.

I also ask the students what are the differences between the book and the movie in terms of issues covered, or not covered, and in terms of the portrayal of people. I also ask how the movie could have been improved.


Completing a timeline is an important aspect of the assessment for this module. Structured testing can also be used to determine if students can identify and describe characters and pertinent aspects of the trial. Group discussions centered around reviewing the book content are also a valuable assessment tool for helping students to interact and discuss their understanding of the Woburn toxic trial.

References and Resources

Support information is available under Resource Collections where you will find maps, testimony, newspaper articles, photographs, and a Who's Who list and a general chronology of events.

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