Witch-Hunt: Mysteries of the Salem Witch Trials

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Witch-Hunt: Mysteries of the Salem Witch Trials

Study Guide


This study guide is designed to enhance students’ mastery of key content and skills in social studies, language arts, and other disciplines through examination of the Salem Witch Trials. It is intended to be used in conjunction with Witch-Hunt: Mysteries of the Salem Witch Trials by Sibert Award-winning author Marc Aronson, along with other materials. The lessons will compliment curriculum in the social studies, particularly early colonial American history and McCarthyism, but also language arts, focusing on Arthur Miller’s portrait of the psychology of witch-hunts, The Crucible. Each lesson is designed with multiple objectives in mind, to make the most efficient use of teacher’s time.

The guide consists of six lesson plans drawn from topics investigated in Witch-Hunt. It is organized around six guiding questions:

  • What was the world-view of the accusers and their contemporaries?

  • What was the relationship between individuals and authority in Puritan society?

  • Why did the accusers do it?

  • What is moral courage and what forms did it take during the Salem Witch Trials? (This activity may be used in conjunction with the John Fitzgerald Kennedy Library Foundation Profiles in Courage high school essay contest.)

  • How were good, evil, and witchcraft understood by the accusers and their contemporaries?

  • How does the historian’s work differ from the dramatist’s work in writing about the Salem Witch Trials?

Within each lesson plan you will find all or most of the following information:

  • Synopsis of lesson

  • National curriculum standards met by this lesson (based on Mid-continent Research for Education and Learning standards and benchmarks, www.mcrel.org)

  • Time required

  • Materials needed

  • The lesson (with lesson-starter and lesson procedures)

  • Additional resources

  • Interdisciplinary activities

Although the study guide is designed so that the six lesson plans provide an integrated course of studies, it is not expected that students will complete all the listed activities. Teachers may assign selected activities to their classes, allow students to choose an activity for themselves, or set up independent learning centers with the material needed for suggested activities. Also, teachers may wish to give students the opportunity to earn extra credit by completing some activities as independent work. Recognizing the time and accountability constraints facing classroom teachers, we encourage you to select and adapt the Witch-Hunt activities that best meet your students’ needs and abilities, curriculum requirements, and teaching style.

This study guide was written by Jean M. West, an education consultant in Port Orange, Florida.

I. What was the world-view of the accusers and their contemporaries?


The world-view of people living in 1692 was fundamentally different from our world-view today. Contemporary understanding of the physical world through astronomy, biology, chemistry, geology, geography, meteorology and physics would boggle the minds of the people of 17th century Salem who saw the physical world through theological assumptions. The modern view of the role of human beings under both civil and divine law is far more relativist and secular than in late 1600s. This lesson provides the opportunity for teachers across the curriculum to work in collaboration, enabling students to research and prepare a multimedia series of displays and presentations to gain understanding of the world-view of 1692. The lesson is designed for grades 9-12, although it may be readily adapted by middle school teams, grades 6-8.

National Curriculum Standards

Mid-continent Research for Education and Learning has created standards and benchmarks for language arts, math, science, geography, economics, and history.

This lesson meets Level IV (Grades 9-12) standards and benchmarks for:

United States History Standards (3rd Ed.) for Era 2 – Colonization and Settlement (1585-1763) including benchmarks:

  1. Understands how gender, property ownership, religion, and legal status affected political rights (e.g., that women were not allowed to vote even if they held property and met religious requirements)

  2. Understands characteristics of religious development in colonial America (e.g., the presence of diverse religious groups and their contributions to religious freedom; the political and religious influence of the Great Awakening; the major tenets of Puritanism and its legacy in American society; the dissension of Anne Hutchinson and Roger Williams, and Puritan objections to their ideas and behavior)

Historical Understanding (3rd Ed.) Standard 2: Understands the historical perspective

including benchmark:

2. Analyzes the influences specific ideas and beliefs had on a period of history and

specifies how events might have been different in the absence of those ideas and


Language Arts (4th Ed.) Standard 4: Gathers and uses information for research purposes including benchmark:

2. Uses a variety of print and electronic sources to gather information for research

topics (e.g., news sources such as magazines, radio, television, newspapers;

government publications; microfiche; telephone information services; databases;

field studies; speeches; technical documents; periodicals; Internet)

Science (4th Ed.) Standard 11: Understands the nature of scientific knowledge

including benchmarks:

1. Knows ways in which science distinguishes itself from other ways of knowing

and from other bodies of knowledge (e.g., use of empirical standards, logical

arguments, skepticism)

3. Understands how scientific knowledge changes and accumulates over time (e.g.,

all scientific knowledge is subject to change as new knowledge becomes available;

some scientific ideas are incomplete and opportunity exists in these areas for new

advances; theories are continually tested, revised, and occasionally discarded)

4. Knows that from time to time, major shifts occur in the scientific view of how the

world works, but usually the changes that take place in the body of scientific

knowledge are small modifications of prior knowledge

This lesson also meets these Level III (Grades 6-8) standards and benchmarks.

United States History Standards (3rd Ed.) for Era 2 – Colonization and Settlement

(1585-1763) including benchmarks:

1. Understands ideas that influenced religious and political aspects of colonial

America (e.g., how the growth of individualism contributed to participatory

government, challenged inherited ideas of hierarchy, and affected the ideal of

community; whether political rights in colonial society reflected democratic

ideas; how Benjamin Franklin’s thirteen virtues in his Autobiography compare

to Puritan ideas and values)

5. Understands the role of religion in the English colonies (e.g., the evolution of

religious freedom, treatment of religious dissenters such as Anne Hutchinson,

the concept of the separation of church and state)

Language Arts (4th Ed.) Standard 4: Gathers and uses information for research

purposes including benchmark:

4. Uses a variety of resource materials to gather information for research topics

(e.g. magazines, newspapers, dictionaries, schedules, journals, phone

directories, globes, atlases, almanacs)
Science (4th Ed.) Standard 11: Understands the nature of scientific knowledge

including benchmark:

3. Knows that all scientific ideas are tentative and subject to change and

improvement in principle, but for most core ideas in science, there is much

experimental and observational confirmation
Time Required
This lesson will probably take three class periods, depending on the amount of planning and research conducted outside of class and the length of student presentations.

Materials Needed

Witch-Hunt: Mysteries of the Salem Witch Trials (Introduction, pp. 14-19; Prologue, pp. 25-39; Chapter I, pp. 44-46; Chapter II, pp. 69-70; Chapter III, pp. 82-88; Chapter X, pp. 203-205)
The Lesson

1. Ask students to read “Skittering Shadows,” pp. 14-16.

2. In the world of 1692 people generally believed God was the “single clearest ‘cause’ for any effect in the world,” although the Devil or Satan and forces of evil also were responsible for some of the problems in the visible world. Reason or science might also provide explanations. Discuss as a class how people of the 17th century might have explained:

  • A deadly disease
  • A freeze that killed the spring crops

  • A blue-eyed child born to brown-eyed parents

3. Discuss in the class how we as modern people try to recognize truth, falsehood and superstition. Ask students whether the “seen” or visible world seems more real than the “unseen” or invisible world, such as that in the cosmos or on the cellular or atomic level. Ask students to consider whether science today explains “reality” to our satisfaction as well as faith did for the people of 1692.

1. Teachers of social studies (History, Geography, Psychology, Sociology and Government) and the physical sciences (Biology, Chemistry, Physics, Earth Sciences/Environmental Sciences, Astronomy) and comparative religions (if an elective) will be coordinating assignments during this lesson. Participating teachers should divide topics among their students. One suggested division is to create the following seven groups: Geography, Astronomy, Biology, Chemistry, Physics, Psychology, and Civil & Religious Law.
2. Each group should research to find answers to questions about the 17th century world-view of their discipline, for example:

  • Geography, meteorology and geology: Students may look at maps of the time period, what was known and unknown about the form, climate and geography of world. They should look at estimated human population in this period and perceptions of villages as islands of civilization in the wilderness (especially true of Old World country folk who might never travel farther than twenty miles from their nameless village and have no bird’s-eye or map perception of their world), terra incognita, and the vastness of the oceans. They should consider what had been learned by sailors, explorers, and the scholastic community as well as immigrants to the New World such as the Puritans, but evaluate how widespread this knowledge was in 1692. Students should note what information is no longer accepted as correct. Students may create a display or computer slide show to illustrate the world of 1692.

  • Astronomy: Students will examine what was known about the solar system and universe, cosmic events such as eclipses and comets, and the degree to which Copernicus and Galileo were accepted not only by the scholastic community but also by the average country folk. Students will also examine the Puritan theological assumptions that there was a physical heaven and hell and their location. Students may use annotated models, drawings, computer slide-shows, and other illustrative material to explain how the universe seemed to people in 1692.

  • Biology: Students will examine the status of knowledge about human anatomy and cell pathology including theories about the “four humors,” microbes, inherited biological traits (particularly in animal and plant husbandry) and their impact on medicines and physician practices in 1692. Students may create displays, skits, or computer slide-shows to illustrate the prevailing knowledge of the time.

  • Chemistry: Students will examine how Aristotelian and phlogiston theories of matter colored the understanding of the world and the degree to which earlier atomic theories and Boyle’s theories were accepted by the educated community and peasantry. Information may be presented in the form of posters, displays, or demonstrations.

  • Physics: Students will examine what 17th century people knew about motion, electricity, magnetism, gravity, light, and energy and create displays or demonstrations to illustrate the understanding of people of an earlier era.
  • Psychology: Students will examine what people in the 17th century believed about brain function, the mind-body connection, the role of environment in human behavior, and differences in human perception. They will also look at the theological issues of free-will and predestination as understood by the Puritans, and the physical reality of Satan and God since these influenced their views of human behavior. They may present the information in the form of skits, a debate, or chart.

  • Civil and Religious (Canon) Law: Students should examine how Puritan theology with its views of original sin and God’s selection of saints (sinners and saints, unsaved and saved) interacted with the presumption of innocence under civil law. They will also examine the common law tradition of categorizing all the English subjects as protected under the law or as “out-laws” (or wolf’s-heads, sub-humans which could be hunted) impacted legal proceedings and what we consider ‘due process’ today. Student have the option to examine Roman Catholic or Anglican Canon law (religious) to determine how categorizing people either as Christians, converts or damned (Muslims, Jews, Indians, witches, heretics) impacted the legal process from accusation and arrest, to interrogation and indictment, and finally trial and punishment. Students may wish to create charts, or a skit to compare and contrast the role of individuals before the law in the past and present.

3. The teams may plan and create multidisciplinary, multi-media displays and demonstrations as suggested above to share their research. They may present their findings within their individual discipline’s class, but if the school schedule will accommodate it, ideally they could present to all participating classes.


1. Once students have completed sharing their findings, ask them to express, from the point-of-view of a person of the 17th century, their beliefs about “My World, 1692.” They may present the world-view in either written form (non-fiction, or fictional narrative, poem, or drama) or illustrated form (captioned exhibit board, model, artwork, or computer-slide show).

2. These may be evaluated on a twenty-point scale (which may be multiplied by five

to convert to 100-point scale or for conversion to letter grades) using the following rubric:

Excellent (10)

Good (9-8)

Fair (7-6)


Satisfactory (5-1)


Work (0)


Locates and uses specific information from a wide range of sources both obvious and unusual
Addresses the impact of theology on the world-view of 1692
No factual errors

Locates and uses general information and examples from obvious sources
Addresses the impact of theology on the world-view of 1692
No factual errors

Locates and uses general information from a limited number of sources
Weak assessment of the impact of theology on the world-view of 1692
No factual errors

Research is weak, topic coverage is incomplete or unbalanced
Little effort to assess the impact of theology on the world-view of 1692
May contain factual errors

No research

Project presentation (Audio or Visual display or performance or demonstration)

Well balanced, thorough presentation of topic information

Appealing project or performance showing originality

Media enhances understanding of topic
Captions or introductory explanations are excellent, either audible and clear or well-written and informative

Generally balanced, complete presentation of topic information
Appealing project or performance
Media generally supports topic
Captions are useful and generally conform to language rules; or, introductory explanations are useful and audible

Presentation of information is not complete for the topic
Appealing project or performance
Media may not always be appropriate to topic
Captions missing in some cases or not clear and may contain errors in language usage; or, introductory explanations are not helpful or are so soft, rapid, or mumbled that they cannot be heard

Presentation of data is incomplete or missing in some aspects of topic or very vague
Project is sloppy or disorganized
Media does not tie in with topic
Little or no captioning or introductory explanations, which may be unclear or irrelevant, and exhibit many errors in language usage

No project

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