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Teaching Guide

Teaching Colonial New England

Bonnets optional.

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When teaching colonial New England, you need to take students back in time to when things were a little more dramatic than Red Sox/Yankees rivalries. (And yes, we know New York isn't in New England). Colonists had bigger fish to fry, like smallpox and alleged witches.

In this guide you will find

  • activities and resources exploring everyone's second-favorite trial, the Salem Witch Trial. (O.J. Simpson took over the top spot in the 1990s.)
  • assignments to help students experience the religious fervor of the time, like the fiery sermons of Jonathan Edwards.
  • literary connections to books like The Crucible and The Scarlet Letter.

There's no reason to feel like you're about to be burned at the stake. Our guide is all the magic you'll need.

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  • 3-5 Common Core-aligned activities (including quotation, image, and document analysis) to complete in class with your students, with detailed instructions for you and your students. 
  • Discussion and essay questions for all levels of students.
  • Reading quizzes to be sure students are looking at the material through various lenses.
  • Resources to help make the topic feel more relevant to your 21st-century students.
  • A note from Shmoop’s teachers to you, telling you what to expect from teaching the topic and how you can overcome the hurdles.

Instructions for You

Objective: How did a handful of young girls with overactive imaginations manage to send nineteen people in to the gallows in the infamous Salem Witch Trials of 1692? Why would an entire community listen to and act on their accusations?

Well, as it turns out—and as is the case with regard to so many of history's darker episodes—the blame for the hysteria and convictions during the Salem Witch Trials rests with more than just a few people, and certainly not just with a handful of young girls. 

Today, your students will analyze the roles played by numerous people in the accusations, convictions, and hangings of those who were found guilty of witchcraft in Salem in the late 17th century. They'll read biographies and weigh numerous factors as they consider how these events came to be, and after a class discussion, students will write brief essays attempting to identify the many factors and factions that made the Salem Witch Trials possible. 

Length of Lesson: 1-2 class periods

Materials Needed:

Step One: Sort your students into small groups. Then suggest to your students that several people contributed to the events of 1692. Assign each group several individuals to research and direct them students to these short biographies of key players in the Salem witchcraft trials. Ask them to identify the part that each of their assigned figures played in sustaining the hysteria. 

For example, how did the ministers provide the doctrinal background for these sorts of accusations? How did the judges lend credibility to the young girls' charges? What made each of the accused witches a plausible target?

Students may also want to examine some of the trial records with the testimony of several accused witches as well as the commentary by Douglas Linder.

You can give groups 15-20 minutes to conduct their research and make notes.

Step Two: Bring the class back together and collectively debrief the groups' work. Post on the board the key role played by each participant in the events. Encourage them to see how no one person or faction could have created the atmosphere necessary for the witch trials to occur on their own. 

Step Three: Following your class discussion, have your students write a short analytical essay in which they attempt to summarize the way in which the hysteria around witchcraft and the resulting Salem Witch Trials came to be. What factors contributed to allow this event to occur? What people and factions played a role? And finally, could something like the Salem Witch Trials take place today? Why or why not?

Step Four (Optional): Before collecting your students' essays, give them a chance to share portions of their writing aloud or to simply discuss the conclusions they drew in the course of their writing. And of course, after you've had a chance to read the essays, you can always read select portions or particularly well made points aloud to the class before handing them back.  

Instructions for Your Students

How did a handful of young girls with overactive imaginations manage to send nineteen people in to the gallows in the infamous Salem Witch Trials of 1692? Why would an entire community listen to and act on their accusations?

Well, as it turns out—and as is the case with regard to so many of history's darker episodes—the blame for the hysteria and convictions during the Salem Witch Trials rests with more than just a few people, and certainly not just with a handful of young girls. 

Today, you'll analyze the roles played by numerous people in the accusations, convictions, and hangings of those who were found guilty of witchcraft in Salem in the late 17th century. And after a little research and a class discussion, you'll write a brief essay attempting to identify the many factors and factions that made the Salem Witch Trials possible. 

Step One: First, your teacher will help you divide into small groups for the research phase of this activity. Once you're in your group, you'll be assigned several individuals to research, which you can do by dividing and conquering (or working together in pairs) in order to examine these short biographies of key players in the Salem witchcraft trials. Your group's goal? To identify the part that each of your assigned figures played in sustaining the hysteria. 

For example, how did the ministers provide the doctrinal background for these sorts of accusations? How did the judges lend credibility to the young girls' charges? What made each of the accused witches a plausible target?

Psst! You may also want to examine some of the trial records with the testimony of several accused witches as well as the commentary by Douglas Linder. There's a lot of good information here that will help you figure out what was going on back in the 1690s.

Step Two: As a whole class, you'll work together to debrief all of the groups' work. Your teacher—or maybe a volunteer who likes to write on the board—will take notes, post the key role played by each participant in the events. 

As your class notes evolve, look for patterns and try to see how all of these individual's roles inter-related in order to create the atmosphere necessary for the witch trials to occur. 

Step Three: Following your class discussion, you'll write a short analytical essay in which you (individually, not working as a group this time) attempt to summarize the way in which the hysteria around witchcraft and the resulting Salem Witch Trials came to be. What factors contributed to allow this event to occur? What people and factions played a role? And finally, could something like the Salem Witch Trials take place today? Why or why not?

WANT MORE HELP TEACHING COLONIAL NEW ENGLAND?

Check out all the different parts of our corresponding learning guide.

Intro    Summary & Analysis    Timeline    People    Facts    Photos    Best of the Web    Citations    
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