Notes from the Curator's Office:

The Witches of Fifth Grade

"She's a witch!" Two students accuse a third during the simulated witch trial.

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 the room.

Halloween Fun

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?

The 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 in mayhem.

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 noose.

The Problem "Hook"

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.

The 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.

Burn Her!

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 grade, however…

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.

Students do research over the internet about the Salem Witch Trials.

Trial Simulation

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.