Teaching The Crucible: An Outline of My Unit

Welcome to my second post in my series on teaching Arthur Miller’s drama, “The Crucible.” In my first post, I offer my top 5 tips on teaching the play, and in this one, I’m mapping out my entire unit, from pre-reading to assessment. I love teaching “The Crucible” now, but I actually hated the play in high school. Year after year, this unit has been a favorite for me and my students. I’m hoping that a glimpse into my planning process helps you make this text more engaging and accessible for your students.

FOCUS SKILLS & STANDARDS

“The Crucible” is a text rich for analysis, and you can teach just about any skill or standard with it. Here are the Common Core standards I prioritize while teaching this text:

PRE-READING

In my previous post, I emphasized the need for teaching historical, cultural, and political context, so check that out to learn more about why it’s so crucial to invest time in this before reading.

My hook for this unit is a fun “How Puritan Are You?” magazine-style personality quiz that helps students learn about Puritan values and practices. After students take the quiz, we discuss what the questions reveal about the Puritan way of life. Then, students learn more about Puritanism through learning stations that introduce students to Puritan ethics, theology, and more.

After students understand Puritanism, we listen to excerpts from Jonathan Edwards’ infamous sermon, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” This lesson is always engaging due to its inherent shock value.

Finally, I introduce my students to the allegorical layer of the play: McCarthyism and the Red Scare. To tackle this, I have students complete a Webquest that builds historical background knowledge. Then, we play the “red dot game,” a simulation that models the process of unfounded accusations during the McCarthy era. This is not my own idea, but a quick Google search will give you instructions on this fun but meaningful activity.

ACT 1

Since “The Crucible” is the first piece of literature we read as a whole class, I heavily scaffold Act 1 and spend a lot of time on it. We always act it out, because I’m a firm believer in the fact that plays are meant to be seen and heard. Acting automatically increases engagement and allows students to take more ownership of the text and unit. For more information on how I do this with my students, check out my previous post.

Between the acting, close reading, analysis, activities, film, and assessment, we spend nearly 2 weeks on Act 1, because it’s crucial to understanding the rest of the play. During acting, we pause, discuss, and check for comprehension frequently. In addition, I have my students complete a character/conflict map as we read. This helps students track of all of the details Miller provides in his mini-essays before new characters come onstage.

We also closely read, annotate, and analyze the scene between Abby and Proctor and then evaluate the changes made to the film adaptation of this scene. At the end of the act, I facilitate learning stations to analyze characters and conflict, allegorical parallels to the Red Scare/McCarthyism, the Puritan paradox, and the role of fear. Finally, we watch the film and analyze the directors’ choices. Film analysis is the perfect way to scaffold the literary analysis we will practice throughout the rest of the play. More on that later!

My Act 1 assessment is a “blame chart” that asks students to critically think about who is responsible for the hysteria at the end of the act. Students distribute blame in a pie chart and defend their interpretation with explanations and textual evidence. You can find all of my Act 1 activities here. 

ACT 2

We spend around 3 days acting out Act 2. I typically have my students read the first portion of this act in small groups. Then, they analyze the conversation between the Proctors with giant close-reading task cards. In small groups, students annotate the excerpts and discuss the conflict between the Proctors.

We act out the rest of Act 2, because who doesn’t want to use props like a poppet, handcuffs, and a search warrant? Along the way, we stop to analyze the purpose of the irony, as well as character development. Analyzing Miller’s choices in the earlier acts of the play scaffolds students’ understanding of the theme and allegorical purpose of the text later on. Finally, after we have analyzed the text in great detail, we watch the film and analyze the director’s choices as a way to practice literary analysis.

To creatively assess students’ understanding of characters and plot, I have them write a diary entry from the perspective of one character. If you’d like to check out all of these activities for Act 2, they’re bundled for you here.

ACT 3

During my first few years of teaching “The Crucible,” we read/acted out all of Act 3 & 4, but it always took too long. I’m pretty sure we spent an entire 2 months on “The Crucible” my first year of teaching. I love acting it out, but I can’t justify too many days of acting the play out when I have analysis standards to teach. To maximize my time, I began substituting the 1996 film adaptation for the text of Act 3 & 4. I created these film analysis guides to scaffold literary analysis through film analysis.

These guides are not your typical “movie guides” filled with comprehension questions to keep the kids busy when you press play. Instead, these guides force students to be active viewers while they analyze characterization, author’s choices, purpose, plot devices, and more. After viewing, we discuss the changes made to the film adaptation and the effect on one’s interpretation of the film. You can read more about my decision to use film with “The Crucible” here and learn about how I engage reluctant readers with film here.

Because I still want students to be exposed to key parts of the text, I supplement the film with close readings of key excerpts from Proctor and Danforth. After viewing Act 3, we do another round of critical thinking learning stations that challenge students to analyze the power structure, characterization, irony, author’s choices, dramatic structure, and author’s purpose. You can check out my close reading activities and learning stations for Act 3 here.

ACT 4

After watching Act 4, I host a funeral for John Proctor, which is just a creative way to force my students to analyze the characterization of Proctor, the meaning behind his death, and how Miller’s choice to end the tragedy in this way contributes to theme and purpose. Students write an elegy or eulogy that creatively demonstrates mastery of these essential questions, and then I set the stage with “sad music” from YouTube and battery-powered tea light candles from the Dollar Tree. It’s always a hit and a much more effective way to address these complex questions.

Finally, I challenge students to “escape the Salem hysteria” through an engaging escape room activity that’s designed to function as review and analysis. The escape room challenges start simple, with comprehension and identification of literary devices, and gradually progress to more cognitively complex tasks involving close-reading, analysis, allegory, and theme. Because this activity forces students to examine the text, we are always able to have much more meaningful discussions about the text as a whole after the escape room.

ASSESSMENT

To assess the literary analysis standards, I use two extended response questions that ask students to analyze character development, theme, and purpose. These written responses offer student choice and are a great way for students to demonstrate mastery of the standards. I’ve found that these written responses are a much better measure of my students’ skills than previous multiple-choice assessments I’ve given. Plus, they offer some much-needed writing practice that will come in handy for our following unit on argumentation. While any written assessment takes more time to grade, I’ve found that I can grade these efficiently with my rubric and sample responses.

Thanks for reading!

I hope this post helps make teaching “The Crucible” easier for you and more engaging for your students. If you are interested in any of these lessons or activities, check out my Crucible unit bundle! In the meantime, please let me know if you have any questions about how I teach this play.

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