Monday, November 7, 2011

The Devil’s in the Details: The Salem Witch Trials

In a small Massachusetts village in 1692, two young girls began having a series of fits that quickly afflicted other girls and young women in the town. Finding no physical cause for the fits, local physicians quickly dubbed it the work of the devil. The girls were thought to be possessed through witchcraft, and they quickly accused three village women of having cast the evil spells. As the news rapidly spread through the New England region, other girls suffered similar afflictions in neighboring towns, and increasingly numbers of women (and some men) were thus accused of witchcraft. In the span of four months, more than 150 people stood accused of witchcraft in the region, and 24 died as a result. Some died in prison, but the majority were executed by hanging, or in one case, being crushed under the weight of piled stones. The event marks a sad and bizarre chapter in American history, and is now viewed as a cautionary tale regarding mass hysteria, as well as legal and moral rushes to judgment.

Life in 17th century New England was fraught with difficulties and moral repression. Belief in witchcraft and the supernatural was deeply ingrained in the community, and events such as infant mortality, crop failures, and the like were attributed to the works of the devil. Salem Village, the locus of the hysteria, was known even before the Trials as a hotbed of discontent in the region.  Villagers constantly bickered over property lines, livestock grazing rights, and perceived social slights and snubs. Religious extremism in the form of their Puritan beliefs also contributed to villagers’ moral intolerance, repression, and social isolation, making the town and others like it virtual tinderboxes waiting to ignite.

Over 300 years later, the Salem Witch Trials continue to fascinate historians and students alike. The topic is ripe with cross-curricular possibilities, ranging from U.S. history, English Language Arts, civics, religion, sociology, jurisprudence, and other subjects. There is a vast amount of primary source documents relating to the Trials available online, making it a great opportunity for students to hone research skills. This week, I’ve selected three resources for various grade levels that all focus on the Salem Witch Trials, and how such a travesty could happen.  I’ll also be featuring several new lessons and resources on this topic each day throughout the week on our Facebook and Twitter pages, so be sure to check those pages regularly.

Salem Witch Trials
Subjects: Language Arts; US History
Grade 3
In this lesson, students will be able to briefly summarize the Salem Witch Trials. They will learn about children’s lives in 17th century New England, and imagine what children’s lives were like during the Trials. This lesson was created by two teachers from Saugus Public Schools in Saugus, Massachusetts.

Dramatization of the Salem Witch Trials
Subjects: US History, Civics
Grade: 4-6
A simple play and follow-up activities can provide elementary students with an opportunity to compare fair and unfair trials. This activity can also provide discussion of why we have certain fair trial (or due process) protections under the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. This lesson was produced by the American Bar Association, a professional association for lawyers in the U.S. The ABA offers educational resources on the law aimed at students and for the classroom.

Colonial America: The Salem Witch Trials
Subjects: US History, Writing
Grade: 9-12
In this lesson, students will learn the basic facts about the Salem Witch Trials and the different theories for the hysteria. They will examine primary source documents, describe the characteristics of Puritanism and its role in 17th-century Salem, and write a fictional, first-hand account as if living in Salem Village in 1692, which reflects one or more of the theories. This lesson is a product of Discovery Education, which provides digital resources to schools and homes with the goal of making educators more effective, increasing student achievement, and connecting classrooms and families to a world of learning.

~ Joann's Picks - October 27, 2011 ~

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