Saturday, January 2, 2016

Who Are the Witches Today?

It started as a conversation at the Michigan Council of Teachers of English Fall Conference just a few months ago. Dr. Jeffrey Wilhelm was leading a group of language arts teachers through a session on inquiry strategies. Working with a small group of teachers, we brainstormed "sexy" essential questions designed to intrigue and inspire our group of learners.

"Who are the witches today?"

I was just starting my unit on conformity, and my tenth grade students would be reading Arthur Miller's play The Crucible. At the onset of the unit, a handful of my students were curious about the history of witches, but most of my students struggled to find relevance in a play about Puritans. Prior to reading the play, students read a series of non-fiction articles about group conformity, including the New York Times' article and follow-up on the 1964 murder of Kitty Genovese as well as articles on the bystander effect. Students were ready to talk about group dynamics and conformity even before we read the opening lines of Miller's play. By asking students to read the play with a critical eye, asking students to make connections to our world today, the play took on new meaning for my
students and later for our school community.

Instead of reading the play as a search for metaphors and allegory, we used our essential question - "Who are the witches today?" - to drive authentic inquiry and project-based learning. Students crafted their own discussion questions about the actions of the play and used these questions to drive their inquiry about marginalized groups in our local community. After reading The Crucible, students took the initial essential question and developed their own follow-up: "What are we going to do to help them?"

Through multiple conversations and written reflections, students identified a variety of marginalized groups in our school and local community - recent immigrants, isolated and bullied students, homeless people, the elderly - who are treated as modern "witches." Using a project-based approach and blogging their reflections, students have planned and implemented new student clubs, presentations for elementary and middle school students on bullying, clothing and supply drives, and activities for our local retirement community.

The Crucible came alive in my classroom. I asked students to research, reflect, and discuss themes presented in Miller's play by making connections to our local community. These were not easy conversations. As we identified isolated and marginalized individuals in our community, personal stories emerged. Students shared hurt, fear, disgust, sorrow, and regret. These were difficult discussions. But necessary. Students wrote, discussed, researched, and reflected, all the while making connections back to the texts we had read in class. The Crucible spoke to our need to do better, to listen to one another, to connect. And after all, isn't that the power of a well-told story?

If you are interested in the using or adapting some of the materials that I used in this unit, you'll find my unit resources HERE. And please let me know if you have any resources, ideas, or suggestions to add!

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