Welcome to the first post in a two-part series on teaching “The Crucible,” a play I love so much that I find myself a little sad when we finish our unit every fall. Since we’ll be done with our unit in a few days, I’m writing this blog post so that my love for “The Crucible” can live on in the cyberspace until I teach it again next year.
I adore “The Crucible” now, but this hasn’t always been the case. Like Gatsby, now my all-time favorite, “The Crucible” is one of those texts that I didn’t enjoy when I read it in high school. While I “hated” Gatsby, according to my high school self, I felt rather lukewarm about “The Crucible.” I didn’t abhor it; it just wasn’t my cup of tea. I’m pretty sure I read it for assigned summer reading (probably the day before it was due) and without any awareness of the parallels to McCarthyism and the Red Scare. All I can remember is a) thinking these Puritans are crazy and b) wishing my teacher would have given us more background information before reading. I would have loved to understand this play while I was reading, not after, once I was informed of the layers of allegory just waiting to be analyzed!
Fast-forward 10 years. Now that I’m teaching “The Crucible,” my mission is to make it as engaging and relevant as possible for my students. I guess it’s my way of being who I needed when I was younger. I’ve found that it’s of my students’ favorite units, year after year. I tweak my unit every year, but this year’s unit has been my my successful one yet, so I decided to reflect on the best changes I’ve made. I hope these tips help you and your students love “The Crucible” just as much as me and my students do!
Front-load your unit with lots of pre-reading activities.
It’s so crucial for students to understand the historical, cultural, and political context of “The Crucible,” a reminder of one of the most shameful, perplexing episodes in American history, and a warning of how society unravels when fear morphs into full-blown hysteria.
Still, it’s tempting to oversimplify “The Crucible” as a play about “those crazy Puritans,” but Miller’s work and this slice of American history deserve more than this kind of cursory interpretation. To prevent an oversimplification, I highly recommend investing more time in the pre-reading phase. All the time you spend studying Puritanism, the witch trials, and McCarthyism in the beginning will pay off as students read. My students and I spend nearly 2 weeks learning about the Puritan ethic, analyzing Johnathan Edwards’ “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” watching a documentary on the trials, and examining the parallels between the witch hunt in Salem and the McCarthy-sponsored hysteria during the second Red Scare. Our pre-reading mini unit also serves to build anticipation for the play itself; by the time we finish learning about “The Crucible,” students are more than ready to begin acting.
Side-note: I’m currently reading The Witches: Suspicion, Betrayal, and Hysteria in 1692 Salem, by Stacy Schiff, and it offers an illuminating glimpse into life in Salem. I’d highly recommend that my fellow teachers read this, or other books on the witch trials, just to better grasp the culture and conflicts of the Puritans. I’ll update this blog/social media once I finish the book and know how I will pair it with my unit next year.
Act it out!
Plays are meant to be seen and heard! I am a firm believer in acting the play out if you can. Acting the play out will automatically increase engagement and allow students to take more ownership of the text and unit. A few props go a long way, too. This year, I ordered colonial wigs, bonnets, and a gavel from Amazon. You can find these props on my Classroom Favorites list if you’re interested. I also have handcuffs and a “poppet” from the Dollar Tree that I use for the end of Act 2, when Elizabeth is arrested and carted off to the Salem jail.
To encourage acting in the beginning of the play, I’ll take a part the first day or two, so I can model the kind of enthusiasm I hope to see in my students. Some classes take longer to warm up to the idea of acting it out, and some days they’re more enthused than others, but it’s always been worth it. I’ve seen some disruptive and disengaged students shine in their new acting roles. Acting it out is rewarding, not to mention hysterical during the illogical and/or ridiculous lines of the play. (Example: “A fart on Thomas Putnam!” Thanks, Miller.)
Remember, in 10 years, students aren’t going to remember the plot structure of the play, but they will remember donning colonial wigs and carrying around poppets, and hopefully that memory is enough to reminder them of the power of hysteria and the danger in widespread, unwarranted accusations without evidence. Right?! I think so.
Structure in small-group learning and discussion to break up the play
Before I made an effort to incorporate more student-centered, small-group learning, my “Crucible” unit seemed to drone on and on forever. Students were engaged in the beginning, but done with the play by the end. Acting the play out is fun, but it’s essential to prevent burnout and break up the whole-class reading/acting with small-group activities so that everyone is engaged, thinking, and discussing the play, not just the select few with roles.
One game-changer to my unit was occasionally breaking up whole class acting with small group reading or acting so that everyone is participating. I do this in Act 1, and then have students complete a character/conflict map in their small groups. This works out well in scenes with few parts, like the beginning of Act 2 (with Proctor, Elizabeth, and Mary Warren). I divide this scene up into excerpts on task cards, give one to each small group, and ask the groups to closely read, annotate, and analyze their section before presenting to the whole class.
Another way I mix up my unit and structure in small-group work is through learning stations at the end of Act 1 and Act 3. During stations, I often hear insightful commentary from shy or reluctant students, voices I rarely hear during whole-group discussions.
Use the film to scaffold literary analysis and substitute parts of the text.
In order to save time and prioritize the most important skills, I decided to make this year’s unit a literary analysis/film analysis hybrid unit. This is a decision that’s been a long time coming. In the past, my colleagues would use the film for Act 3, while stubborn old me would crank through the act, determined to instill reading endurance and demonstrate the value of reading literature all the way through. There’s still value in that, but for my students’ needs, it just wasn’t working out. We were spending too much time reading aloud and running out of time to do challenging analysis and engaging activities. This year, I agreed to read Acts 1 and 2 and substitute the film adaptation for Acts 3 and 4. This was the best decision ever, and I didn’t have to sacrifice one ounce of rigor. In fact, I am confident that I increased the rigor, because this allowed us to spend more time on critical thinking and less time on simple comprehension.
To facilitate analysis during the film, I created film analysis guides for the 1996 film adaptation. These worksheets are not your typical “movie guides” filled with “busy-work” style comprehension questions. Rather, these worksheets prompt students to analyze characterizations, author’s choices, purpose, plot devices, and more. The questions force my students to be active viewers and critical thinkers.
In fact, I’ve had a few students complain that the film analysis questions are too difficult, because their version of “movie” day involves the teacher pressing play and the students sitting back and relaxing. One students even said the film analysis worksheets were more difficult than “reading a book.” Laughing, I replied, “Mission accomplished. I’m doing my job!” It took some time to train students to actively watch the movie, just like they would “close read” a text, but by the end of the film, students were successfully answering questions about the impact of the director’s choices and on their way to understanding Miller’s purpose in writing “The Crucible.”
Despite the stigma to pressing play in the classroom, film analysis offers the perfect opportunity to scaffold the elusive and intimidating skill of literary analysis, and “The Crucible” is no exception! If you’re interested in learning more about film analysis and the standards it covers, check out my post here.
Analyze the allegory and symbolism as you read, not after.
This tip comes from my own experience with reading this play in high school, but also from the way I’ve taught “The Crucible” and other texts before. I used to introduce the concept of allegory and tell students to “pay close attention” to the characters and symbols as we read, but I usually waited until the end of the play to fully analyze the allegorical parallels. Now, I facilitate those connections before and throughout the play. We discuss the similarities of the Salem Witch Trials and the Red Scare before we begin reading, and then we examine the parallels as we read, analyzing how Miller crafted this play to accomplish his purpose. Then, by the end of the play, it’s simply a matter of putting all of the puzzle pieces together to understand the allegory, theme, and purpose. This year, I’m actually using an escape room to review the allegorical symbolism; students will have to match the character/element from “The Crucible” that represents the individual/element from the Red Scare. Then they will analyze theme in the final challenge of the breakout, which will serve as as springboard for a final discussion the play’s purpose before my students take their culminating assessment on “The Crucible.”
I hope these tips help make your “The Crucible” unit more engaging and relevant for your students. In the final installment of my two-part series on “The Crucible,” I will walk you through my unit and explain what we do in each act, so stay tuned for even more specific teaching tips. In the meantime, let me know your favorite part of teaching “The Crucible” in the comments!