from the Curator's Office:
of Fifth Grade
a witch!" Two students accuse a third during the simulated
Double, double, toil and trouble; Cauldron
burn, and fire bubble!
(10/06) Things just aren't predictable. Five years
ago I was employed as an Interactive Producer with a well-known
website. If you had approached me then carrying a crystal ball
and telling me that my future included spending a week teaching
a fifth grade class of urban, minority students about the Salem
Witch Trials of 1692, I would have laughed at you and had security
haul you away.
Of course, life has a way of throwing us the strangest
curves. For reasons too complex (and too unpredictable) to address
here, I did wind up leaving that job and entering a Masters Degree
program in teaching That program did require that I spend a semester
working in an urban school district.
The college I was attending actually required two
different internship experiences. For this first one I was partnered
with another graduate student. I suspect there are a couple good
reasons why the school does this. First, teaching has become a
much more collaborative venture than it has been in the past and
working with another person makes for good preparation. Second,
for many students the first experience working in a real classroom
can be a little intimidating and this way you at least have somebody
to be intimidated with.
My partner for this intimidation - oops, I mean
adventure - was Jennifer. Now let me say that working with Jennifer
by itself was just a little bit intimidating. It wasn't that she
was difficult, or mean, or anything like that. Just the opposite,
in fact. The problem was that Jen was very personable and extremely
attractive. Traits that I pretty much lack. Within hours of showing
up at our new school, she was the darling of all the kids in the
classroom. For example, the first week we were required to eat
lunch with the students. As soon as we appeared in the cafeteria
the kids in our class started yelling, "Miss E! Miss E! Sit over
here with us! Over here!" and squeezing together to make space
for her on one of the benches near the middle of a table. I, on
the other hand, was greeted with silence, until one boy, with
an expression of pity on his face, looked up at me and said, "I
think there might be a seat at the end of that table over there,
Mr. K" pointing to a location half way to the opposite side of
Even more intimidating was that she was a great
teacher and quickly came up with a bunch of cool activities to
do with the children. Jen, as I soon found out, was crazy about
Halloween. I mean I think it's an okay holiday and all that, and
have even invested some bucks in a few impressive rubber masks
to scare the heck out of the kids that visit my house for treats
every October 31st -- after all, whatever candy they don't take
I get to keep, right?
fabulous Miss E gives a dramatic reading from her haunted
corner of the classroom.
Jen's the type of person, however, that takes things
a little further than that by doing things like turning the front
lawn of her parents' house into a graveyard and dressing up her
dog for the holiday as King Tut. When October rolled around she
had a caldron full of Halloween-related ideas to try out. Soon
one corner of the classroom was turned into a haunted house, complete
with spider webs and a creepy candelabra. There she made a pile
of every book she had pulled from the school library that had
a scary theme so that the kids could read them during their free
time. Jen's undergrad was in theater and before getting the teaching
bug she had spent six years or so working as an actress in New
York. This gave her a real flare for the theatrical and shortly
had the kids writing scary stories and doing dramatic readings
of them from the school stage.
Meanwhile while she was off doing all this impressive,
wonderful stuff, I was charged with coming up with a cool idea
for the unit we had to do with the kids in social studies. I was
desperately trying to find something that would fit the Halloween
theme and interest the kids, as well as Jen. Also, since the school's
social studies program for fifth grade covered the United States,
there had to be some link with American history.
Then it came to me: the Salem Witch Trials, what
could be more perfect?
Well, in retrospect, maybe not. I mean, was I really
going to be able to interest a bunch of ten-year-old, 21st century
city kids in what happened in a tiny, rural village up in Massachusetts
over three hundred years ago? The only feature it had going for
it was that forty people had been hanged as a result of the trials,
something which I knew would appeal to our 5th graders inate interest
For those of you not up on the Salem Witch Trials'
it involved a group of children accusing adults of witchcraft,
a very serious crime at the time. Those who confessed were forgiven
and those that maintained their innocence were hung. Since it
has pretty well been established that nobody was really practicing
witchcraft in Salem at the time, this meant, ironically, that
the honest people died while the liars and accusers escaped the
Though the subject might seem far removed from the
lives of the kids in our class, the issues: the impact of lying,
the need to tell the truth even at a threat to your own life,
I thought might resonate with the kids and provide a worthwhile
learning experience. Jen agreed and we set to work on putting
our unit together. Not all of it was easy, however. For example,
there was the problem of the "hook."
For those of you not in the teaching biz, the "hook"
takes place at the beginning of a lesson and is designed to whet
the students' interest in the subject of the day. A good hook
can be difficult to come up with as it should be attention-grabbing,
informative and - another teaching buzz phrase - "activate the
student's prior knowledge." Activating prior knowledge is just
a fancy way of saying that if you jog somebody's memory about
what they know about a subject before you teach on it, they are
more likely to retain whatever you taught them.
On the Friday before the week when we were supposed
to start our unit, we still had no good hook for the following
Wednesday. To make matters worse, the teacher assistant in the
class had just drafted Jen into writing a Thanksgiving play that
was needed by that Tuesday. This meant that she was tied up for
the whole weekend, leaving me to struggle on my own with coming
up with the hook.
Pennsylvania Renaissance Faire
Fortunately, that weekend my wife had managed to
get tickets for our family to the Pennsylvania Renaissance Faire.
A renaissance faire is an attempt to reproduce a bit of medieval
Europe in the modern world. A lot of people there are dressed
as knights, ladies, pirates, musketeers, etc. and there are shows
that are supposed to emulate the spirit of those long ago times.
As soon as we arrived at the faire that Saturday morning, I looked
on the activity schedule and spotted a very interesting show titled
"Witch Trial." Of course, it went right to the top of our list
of things to see. Who knows, maybe I could get some ideas.
The show was mostly comic entertainment rather
than history, but one segment, involved a woman being tied up
and dressed as a witch against her will so that she could be brought
to trial. This gave me an idea. My thought was to get Jen to dress
up as a witch (black robe, hat, fake nose, etc.), and I would
pretend to drag her into the room tied up and gagged, telling
the kids that I found a witch in the hall and that we should put
her on trial.
The kids, of course, seeing through the disguise
that this was their beloved Miss E, would tell me "Gee, Mr. K.
That's no witch, it's Miss E! We can't put her on trial!"
To that I would reply, "No, Miss E. doesn't have
a long, ugly nose like that!"
To which they would reply, "No, no, that's just
a fake nose!"
I would then discover that they were right and in
the same way we would go through the hat and robe until I ungagged
her and would realize, to my horror, that it really was Miss E.
who I had captured while she was trying on her Halloween costume.
The point of the whole skit was to get the kids to recognize that
just because you might look like a witch doesn't mean that really
your are a witch.
The more I thought about it I knew it would be great.
More than great. It was on target, educational and would get the
kids laughing. It was the perfect "hook."
Before I could implement this perfect hook, however,
there was a least one problem. I was sure Jen would be happy to
dress up as a witch. She was an actress, right? She loved Halloween,
right? What concerned me was the part about tying her up and gagging
her, which was necessary for the bit to work. How do you break
it to somebody that you want to tie them up and gag them, even
for a highly noble and educational purpose? I had nightmares about
Jen bursting into our supervising professor's office in tears
crying, "You've partnered me with a pervert! Get me out of there!"
To Jen's credit she didn't bat an eyelash when I
told her about the idea. I can only guess that working as an actress
in New York must have prepared her for just about anything.
By that Wednesday we were prepared to do my "perfect
hook." Just before the lesson started, Jen slipped into the next
room and put on her witch costume ( In the end she found a way
to bind and gag herself). As we got underway, I dragged her into
the room and announced that I had found a witch out in the hall
and that we should put her on trial, convict her and burn her
just like they had in medieval times. It was at this point that
the "perfect hook" took a wrong curve.
It certainly would have worked in a second or third
grade class. Probably even with a fourth grade class. With fifth
I braced myself for the outcry from the kids telling
me this was an injustice and demanding that I let their beloved
Miss E. go. Instead, what I got was a primitive, slowly-building,
chant of …
"Burn her! Burn her! BURN HER!!!!!"
We hadn't anticipated this. In desperation I first
looked at Jen for help, but there wasn't much she could really
say to help since she had a gag in her mouth. Next, I looked down
at little Katie who was sitting directly in front of me in the
first row of the class. Katie was the sweetest, gentlest, most
innocent child in the room and Jen's greatest fan. If anybody
would protest and save Jen, it would be little Katie. I looked
down at her with hope. Her little face screwed up in concern for
a moment, then she looked up at me, smiled and said…
So much for childhood innocence. Even the beloved
Miss E. would not compete with our fifth grader's lust for blood.
As I said, things are just not predictable. It took me a good
couple minutes to find a way to turn the whole thing around and
point out that this person might really be Miss E. in disguise
(well, we all knew that, but…) and eventually we did establish
the point that looking evil does not make you evil.
do research over the internet about the Salem Witch Trials.
The rest of the unit went pretty well, culminating
with a simulated witch trial. One of my few talents is a deep
announcer-like voice, so to set the mood for the trial I turned
down the lights in the room, put on a recording of "Tubular Bells"
from The Exorcist, and said to the class using my most
dramatic, Rod-Sterling-type articulation, "For the last week we
have been studying about the Salem Witch Trials. Now we are going
to take you back in time to those days to actually participate
in a trial." Silence enveloped the room and you could hear a pin
drop. "You will have to face those same awful decisions that the
residents of Salem did. Mind what you have learned, as it might
save your life…"
Some of our kids played the accusers, others the
judges, while most of the class were villagers. Once accused,
the villagers (as in real-life) had the choice of proclaiming
their innocence and standing trial (whereas they were almost certainly
"executed") or deciding to lie and confess to being a witch so
they could go free. The price to confession, however, was that
they had to reveal cohorts in witchcraft and accuse them. In short
order most of the class found themselves unwillingly drawn into
the situation just as the villagers in the real Salem. Jen even
had the brilliant idea of getting a pair of plastic handcuffs
from the dollar store to lead the prisoners up to the defendant's
chair. The whole thing went really well. I could just tell that
we had made a real impression on the students about the importance
of what had happened at Salem and the damage a lie could do.
A couple of days later I poured through a pile of
sheets that we had given the kids to fill out about their reactions
to the unit. I was anxious to see what they had learned. What
had made the biggest impression on them? Was it seeing how easily
the accusations spread through the village during our simulated
trial? Was it reading about how innocent people were unjustly
accused of a serious crime? Was it watching the movie clip of
the victims being led off to the gallows to face their deaths?
I picked up the first sheet and started reading:
"My favorite part of our unit on the Salem Witch
Trials was Mr. K's voice and Miss E's handcuffs…"
Like I said, things just aren't predictable.
Copyright Lee Krystek 2006.
All Rights Reserved.