Teaching The Crucible is absolutely one of my favorite units of the year. I usually prefer choice reading units to whole class units; however, as a play that can be read, acted out, and watched, The Crucible works really well as a whole class work. What I really love about teaching this play is that it’s a great text to pair with new perspectives for engaging and memorable learning opportunities for students.
As a high school student, I don’t remember a lot about reading The Crucible in 11th grade; it just wasn’t that memorable to me. What I remembered was Arthur Miller’s metaphor for McCarthyism and how “witch hunts” occur in the modern day. This hook was exactly what I was interested in, so for planning my unit to teach The Crucible, I knew I had to include a historical lens to study this connection.
But why stop there? If I was engaged with this type of historical connection, maybe other students would be hooked with other perspectives to examine this text. What I learned is that The Crucible is one of those magical texts that can really make an impact when paired with engaging perspective-taking activities. In this blog post, I’m happy to share five low-prep, high-impact ways to make The Crucible both meaningful and memorable!
1. Use Literary Lenses to Explore New Perspectives
I’ve written a lot about why I love using literary lenses as a planning strategy, especially with classic works. Using lenses as a brainstorming strategy, I can create activities to help students see the work from a new lens (or several lenses). You can read more about how I use literary lenses as a lesson planning strategy here. Not only do literary lenses give you as a teacher inspiration for creating engaging activities, but they also give you ways to provide unique perspectives for looking at a classic text.
So let’s talk specifically about lenses related to The Crucible. First, we know that providing the historical and cultural contexts is a must for this work. Historically, we have to explain Arthur Miller’s intentions, while we can explore the Puritan culture to explain the witch hunt metaphor. These two lenses are pretty obvious, so let’s think about other lenses worth discussing:
- Women’s studies: Can you explore the role of women in Puritan society and those who broke stereotypes and expectations?
- Social: Can you explore social behaviors of people during this time and after?
- Reader Response: Can you ask students to connect to or respond to the story or the witch hunt concept?
- Formal: What examples of symbolism are significant?
- Psychological: Can you study the emotional appeals in different speeches throughout the text?
2. Set the Stage with the Historical and Biographical Contexts
Once I’ve decided on specific lenses that I’d like to use in the unit, then I move on to creating learning opportunities that help students see the content from the new lens. Foremost, for this text, I use the historical and cultural lenses to contextualize the play.
For starters, I enjoy using nonfiction close reading passages to explain the Red Scare and McCarthyism. Paired with engaging discussion questions, this lesson is great for connecting Arthur Miller’s experience with House Un-American Activities Committee hearings and Hollywood Blacklists. After close reading an article about this situation, a great follow-up activity to pair with this lens is a panel discussion or Socratic seminar.
This biographical lens is a great way to introduce the witch trials metaphor and Miller’s fascination with the Salem Witch Trials of the late 1600s. I don’t feel the need to dig deep into the Witch Trials at this point because 1) most students have a general knowledge of it by the time they’re in my class and 2) if they don’t, they’ll learn about it through our reading of the play during the unit. This 1996 New Yorker article by Miller dives much deeper into his intentions. My students always find this biographical context really interesting! I wait until the end of the unit to read and discuss this article because there are some plot spoilers in it.
3. Explore Puritan Culture
Once students understand the metaphor between the Salem Witch Trials and Miller’s experience in the 1950s, then we dive into Puritan culture. Learning stations and/or task cards work really well for this endeavor because there are several topics to cover in relation to the play. Here are some of the key topics students research:
- Calvinism: Understanding 17th century Putian’s beliefs in predestination (the idea that only a select few are destined for heaven, selected at birth, and won’t know until they die) may explain some of their paranoia.
- Puritan social etiquette and rules: Learning about the strict rules and punishments may explain how the trials became deadly.
Students can explore these topics with their own research and then discuss afterwards. Now, when they read the text, I’ll have some understanding of their customs.
4. Connect to Historical People
Along with researching Puritan culture, students can explore the lives and experiences of famous Puritans to understand the cultural context in terms of the lived experience.
For an understanding of Puritan preaching, students can study Jonathan Edwards’s famous sermon, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” Exploring the powerful appeals to fear and the hellish imagery, students will gain an understanding of Puritan paranoia.
Another valuable activity is to study the role of women through two women who stepped out of the norm, Anne Bradstreet and Anne Hutchinson. Through Bradstreet’s poetry and Hutchinson’s boldness, these women show a breaking of gender expectations and roles. This is an interesting lesson in connection to the text as all the accusers were young women who gained power through unusual means: their accusations.
5. Make a Hysteria Brew
Through these lessons, students will build an understanding that something as terrible as the Salem Witch Trials happened because of many complex and layered factors, not just one. To drive this point home, I ask students to create a hysteria brew. As a culminating activity for this important social theme, this “brew” includes all the “ingredients” that lead to this event: paranoia, misplaced authority, mob mentality, revenge, etc.
What’s great about this method is that you can then apply these concepts to other hysteria situations, namely the witch hunt Miller experienced. A collaborative poster format works great for presenting this activity.
6. Create a Classroom Memorial
After reading the play and understanding the injustice that resulted, students can create a character memorial to explore a social connection between then and today. I came up with this idea when I visited Salem in 2019 for the Keeping the Wonder Workshop. During our historical tour, I learned it took 300 years for a memorial to be built in honor of those who died during this tragic event. Political disagreements over the legacy of the trials ensued as a faction did not want a reminder of the event in their city. This situation creates an interesting social study and gives students an opportunity to create their own character memorial honoring the character and researching their real-life counterpart.
Putting It All Together
If you like these ideas (and you want to save a lot of time creating the activities to go along with this unit), check out my complete unit for The Crucible. It includes all the activities described here, plus a teacher’s guide and assessments.