Lesson Plans: Grades 6-8

Understanding the Salem Witch Trials

A We The People Resource


The Lesson


"Witchcraft Victims on the Way to the Gallows,"by F.C. Yoyan, appeared in  the Boston Herald, May 14, 1930.

"Witchcraft Victims on the Way to the Gallows,"by F.C. Yoyan, appeared in the Boston Herald, May 14, 1930.

Credit: Image courtesy of Witchcraft in a Salem Village.

Salem, Massachusetts in 1691 was the home of a Puritan community with a strict moral code. In addition to the difficulties of farming in a harsh climate with rough terrain, Salem faced economic and political unrest. In this community, a group of girls accused an Indian slave named Tituba of witchcraft. Tituba confessed under pressure from court officials, and her confession ignited a hunt for witches that left 19 men and women hanged, one man pressed to death, and over 150 more people in prison awaiting a trial. In this lesson, students will explore the characteristics of the Puritan community in Salem, learn about the Salem Witchcraft Trials, and try to understand how and why this event occurred.

Guiding Questions

  • What was life like in Puritan New England?
  • What are some possible explanations for the witch trials in Salem, Massachusetts?

Learning Objectives

  • Describe some of the important elements of life in Puritan New England
  • Create a timeline of the events of the Salem Witch Trials
  • Understand the concept of multiple interpretations of history


Salem, Massachusetts in the late 1600s faced a number of serious challenges to a peaceful social fabric. Salem was divided into a prosperous town and a farming village. The villagers, in turn, were split into factions that fiercely debated whether to seek ecclesiastical and political independence from the town. In 1689 the villagers won the right to establish their own church and chose the Reverend Samuel Parris, a former merchant, as their minister. His rigid ways and seemingly boundless demands for compensation increased the already present friction. Many villagers vowed to drive Parris out, and they stopped contributing to his salary in October 1691.

These local concerns only compounded the severe social stresses that had already been affecting New England for two decades. A 1675 conflict with the Indians known as King Philip's War had resulted in more deaths relative to the size of the population than any other war in American history. A decade later, in 1685, King James II's government revoked the Massachusetts charter. A new royally-appointed governor, Sir Edmund Andros, sought to unite New England, New York, and New Jersey into a single Dominion of New England. He tried to abolish elected colonial assemblies, restrict town meetings, and impose direct control over militia appointments, and permitted the first public celebration of Christmas in Massachusetts, a celebration of which Puritans strongly disapproved. After William III replaced James II as King of England in 1689, Andros's government was overthrown, but Massachusetts was required to eliminate religious qualifications for voting and to extend religious toleration to sects such as the Quakers. The late seventeenth century also saw a increase in the number of black slaves in New England, which further unsettled the existing social order.

In February 1692, Betty Parris, Reverend Parris's daughter, as well as her friends Abigail Williams and Ann Putnam, became ill with symptoms that doctors could not diagnose, including fits and delirium. Dr. Griggs, who attended to the "afflicted" girls, suggested that they might be bewitched. Mercy Lewis, Mary Walcott, and Mary Warren later claimed affliction as well.

Prodded by Parris and others, the girls named their tormentors: Sarah Good, a poor woman; Sarah Osbourn, an elderly woman; and Tituba, a slave who had told them stories involving Vudou beliefs. The women were tried for witchcraft - Good and Osbourn claimed innocence, and Tituba confessed. Tituba's detailed confession included a claim that there were several undiscovered witches who wanted to destroy the community. This caused a witch-hunting rampage: 19 men and women were hanged, one man was pressed to death, and over 150 more people were imprisoned, awaiting trial.

On September 22, 1692, the last eight alleged witches were hanged. On October 8, 1692, Governor Phipps ordered that spectral evidence (when someone claimed to witness a person's spirit in a separate location from that same person's physical body) could no longer be admitted in witchcraft trials. On October 29, 1692 Phipps prohibited further arrests and released many accused witches. The remaining alleged witches were pardoned by May 1693. The hangings of witches in 1692 were the last such hangings in America.

For more information, see the following EDSITEment-reviewed websites:

Preparation Instructions

  • Review the lesson plan. Locate and bookmark suggested materials and other useful websites. Download and print out documents you will use and duplicate copies as necessary for student viewing.
  • Students can access the primary source materials and some of the activity materials via the EDSITEment LaunchPad.
  • Familiarize yourself with the Salem Witch Trials. For an overview, consult Digital History. For more detailed information, consult Salem Witch Trials Documentary Archive.
  • If you plan to have students create pictures, or if you want to use larger sized paper for your students' timelines, be sure to have those materials handy.
  • Though each reading activity provides questions for discussion for the readings, teachers may wish to spend a few minutes with students asking introductory questions to help distill what they have read.

Lesson Activities

Activity 1. Life in Puritan New England

Separate the class into four groups, and assign each group one section of the EDSITEment LaunchPad under the label Understanding Puritan New England. Offer them the following instructions, and suggest that they distribute the reading evenly and return to discuss the questions after 10–15 minutes of reading. Instructors might also consider assigning this reading the night before as homework.

Understanding Puritan New England

Instructions for students: Just as the society around us shapes the way we think and act, so did it shape the people of Salem, Massachusetts in the 1600s. Look at the websites listed below, and, on a separate sheet of paper, answer the questions about life in Puritan New England. Note that many of the websites contain interactive images. Click on the images to open them, and mouse-over the image to discover more about it.

Group One:

The Puritans

The Puritan Idea of the Covenant

New Groups: A Great Migration

Working: "To 1 day work at my house"

Beliefs: A City upon a Hill

  1. What values that we now consider 'American' were contributed by the Puritans?
  2. In the 1920s, how did people remember the Puritans? Define the word 'caricature' and explain how it relates to the Puritans.
  3. To what extent did Puritans condemn alcohol consumption, artistic beauty, and poetry?
  4. What did the Puritans believe was the primary purpose of government?
  5. What did the Puritans think about the separation of church and state?
  6. What is a 'separatist'? Were the Puritans 'separatists'? If not, describe their philosophy regarding the Church of England.
  7. What is a 'covenant'? Explain the function of 'covenants' in the way the Puritans saw the world.
  8. Did Puritans believe in tightly knit communities and families, or did they value families that were dispersed?
  9. Describe some reasons why Puritans came to America from Europe.
  10. What were some of the strategies New England colonists used to deal with the labor shortage?
  11. Describe some of the religious beliefs of the Puritans.

Group Two

The Puritans

Gender Roles: Beliefs and Gender Roles

Education: Print and Protestantism

Customs: Possessions Reveal Social Standing

Getting Things: Importing Status

Child Life: Fleeting Mortality

  1. What values that we now consider 'American' were contributed by the Puritans?
  2. Look up the word 'Patriarchal' in the dictionary. Define what it means, in your own words.
  3. What were some of the responsibilities of men in the 1700s in Colonial New England? What were some of the responsibilities of women?
  4. Explain how the story of Adam and Eve was used to perpetuate prevailing ideas about men and women.
  5. Were schools important in New England? Did people know how to read?
  6. Were there as many schools in other parts of America as there were in New England?
  7. Did wealthy people tend to spend a lot of money? What are some of the things you think they would buy?
  8. What does 'conspicuous consumption' mean?
  9. Why did so many children die at young ages in colonial New England?

Group Three

The Puritans

The Land 1680–1720

Agriculture: Agriculture and Community

Public Space: The Meeting House

  1. What values that we now consider 'American' were contributed by the Puritans?
  2. According to your reading, what did most Europeans think of the North American Landscape?
  3. What were some early colonial industries?
  4. What was the center of public and religious life in New England?
  5. Describe the common field system.
  6. What were some results of European fences, mills, grass, and livestock being brought to New England?
  7. Explain how a mill worked.
  8. What were the criteria that a committee would use to "seat" the meetinghouse?
  9. Who was allowed to vote? What did they vote on?

Ask students to explore the EDSITEment-reviewed websites using the LaunchPad and questions as guides. Once they have answered all of the questions, ask students to prepare a summary of what they learned to present to the class. Have everyone contribute to the overall discussion about Puritan values (the same question begins each list), and then have students present their information to the class. This should be no more than a few sentences highlighting the key concepts of the aspect of Puritan life that they researched.

Activity 2. What is a Puritan? Case Studies

Ask students to access the following websites and answer the questions listed below. This can be done individually or with partners, and can also be given as a homework assignment. Ask students to read slowly and carefully, looking up words they do not understand and writing them down in their notebook.

John Dane's Narrative


Read the first five paragraphs of John Dane's Narrative, until you reach the following passage: "Then said my mother, " go where you will, God he will find you out." This word, the point of it, stuck in my breast; and afterwards God struck it home to its head."

  1. What does John Dane's piece about morality tell you about Puritan life?
  2. Define 'Providence' and explain John Dane's beliefs about Providence.
  3. In the third paragraph of John Dane's narrative, he relates a story about his upbringing. In a paragraph, explain your reaction to his story. How is this different or similar to your own interactions with your parents?
  4. Choose one paragraph in John Dane's narrative and summarize it in your own words.

Finally, write the following names on slips of paper, and have students draw them from a hat. A convenient PDF with all the names is available for you to print out.

Bridget Bishop; Rev. George Burroughs; Giles Cory; Mary Easty; Sarah Good; Rebecca Nurse; John Proctor; Ann Pudeator; Samuel Wardwell; Sarah Osbourne; William Stoughton; John Hathorne; Samuel Sewall; Francis Dane; Cotton Mather; Sarah Churchill; Elizabeth Hubbard; Mercy Lewis; Elizabeth Parris; Ann Putnam, Jr.; Mary Warren; Mary Wallcott; Abigail Williams; Tituba; Philip English; George Jacobs, Sr., Susannah Martin; Sir William Phips; Samuel Parris.

Ask students to do the following as a homework assignment:

Find your assigned person on the website 'Important Persons in the Salem Court Records' and write five sentences about him or her answering some of these questions, or similar questions that you come up with on your own: How old was the person? What was the person's occupation? What do we know about the person's family? Why do people think this person was accused of witchcraft and/or accused others of witchcraft? What is most remembered in about this person in current popular culture, if anything? Was this person wealthy or poor? Where did this person live?

Activity 3. The Salem Witch Trials

Introduce the trials by asking students:

  • What do you think of when you hear the word witch?

If time allows, have students read Words About the Word 'Witch', available via the EDSITEment-reviewed Digital History website. Otherwise, you might use the website to guide your students' discussion of the term.

As a way to draw together the earlier work on Puritan beliefs and the more specific instance of the Salem Witch Trials, introduce to students the description of Witchcraft available at the EDSITEment-reviewed website History Matters. You might ask students questions like: Who was the head of a Puritan household? What was thought of women who stood out? What cues suggested signs of witchcraft? How do these cues fit within the Puritan worldview that you researched earlier?

At this point, students should begin to reconstruct the history of "What Happened in Salem?" They should begin with their individual person that they researched (see Activity 2). Make sure students follow their individual's role, no matter how small or large, as best they can throughout the process. In combination with this Chronology via the Salem Witch Trials Documentary Archive, have students separate into groups of four to create a timeline of the Salem Witch Trials. Events on the timeline should each have one sentence attached to them, to assure that students read information about the events, rather than just finding them on the Chronology. The students can illustrate their timelines if there is time for them to do so.

If some groups of students finish earlier than others, ask these students to access this petition for bail from accused witches. Ask students to click on the document and to try to read it. What was it like reading this kind of document? What was the document about? What were some of the reasons that the accused witches cite for why they should be allowed to leave the prison? You might consider recommending both the NARA Primary Document Analysis Worksheet (PDF) and How to Read Old Documents (from American Centuries) to help students figure out the petition.

As students are completing the timeline or reading the primary source document, post signs on your walls - on one side of the classroom, post the words "I agree" and on the other side, post the words "I don't agree". Read a series of controversial statements, listed below, and have students stand somewhere between the "I agree" and "I disagree". They don't have to agree or disagree, they can stand in the middle, or closer to one side than the other, wherever on the spectrum they fit. After each statement is read and students are standing in their spots based on levels of agreement, conduct a conversation from those places, so students can physically see where they are. Students may change physical positions if they change their minds based on discussion. If students move, they should be asked what convinced them to change their mind.

Feel free to add to or alter this list of statements:

  1. There is nothing about the Puritan way of life that I wish was a part of my life.
  2. The law is always right.
  3. Nothing like the Salem Witch Trials happens nowadays.
  4. People who are accused of crimes are usually bad people.
  5. The 'afflicted' girls who made the witchcraft accusations were bad people.
  6. You should never confess to something of which you are not guilty.
  7. It was just a coincidence that most of the alleged witches were female.
  8. There is a clear, easy explanation for why the Salem Witch Trials happened.
  9. The trials happened because of the 'afflicted girls', and not because of other, larger social forces.
  10. It is silly to believe in witches.

Some of these questions might be best asked of the historical people the students have been tracking since Activity 2. Have the students role-play their historical person, answering some of the questions as the student might think their historical person would respond. Make sure the students explain their rationale behind their decisions.

Activity 4. Causes of the "Hysteria"

Use the Salem Witch Trials as an opportunity to explore the concept of the multiplicity of explanations and causes there can be for one event. Ask students to brainstorm a list of reasons why they think the Salem Witch Trials might have happened, which you can then write on the board. Ask them to support their reasons based on evidence they've learned in their study of the event. Add some of these Causes for the Outbreak of Witchcraft Hysteria in Salem, available via the EDSITEment reviewed Digital History website, to their list. Discuss the possibility that there was more than one cause of this event. Ask students to identify other historical events to which there were many causes. To extend this lesson, you can ask your students to write a short essay underlining some of the causes of the Salem Witchcraft hysteria.


  • Have the students consider the material on a personal level by continuing to follow their historical person (or another person involved in the trial) from Activity 2. Either print out copies or have students read online the transcripts from the Salem Witch Trials, which can be found at the Salem Witch Trials Documentary Archive. Have students separate into small groups and read aloud from the transcripts. Students can alternatively research their historical person using these court documents. Students don't have to read a whole trial, but should get a sense of the people involved and how the trial progressed. As they work through this activity, ask students to consider the following questions. If you wish, students can use this information to complete the second assessment activity, listed below
    • What kind of evidence was used during these trials?
    • Were the accused innocent until proven guilty?
    • Think about the vocabulary used in these court cases. Who makes reference to the Bible - the accused, the judges, the accusers, everyone? When do they reference the Bible? Why do you think they make these references?
    • What were the punishments for witchcraft? Were they appropriate punishments?
    • Who were the witnesses, if any? What did they add to the court proceedings? Was their testimony useful? Does it seem to have been taken into account by the judge? To which witnesses, or which testimonies, is more attention paid?
    • What pressures did the accusers face? The judges?
    • What kinds of things were the 'witches' accused of causing to happen?
  • Have students write a story, letter, or diary entry from the perspective of one of the afflicted. The writing should involve some or all of the following: personal feelings of the historical figure, description of 'fits' and other sensations experienced by the 'afflicted', an accusation, a court trial or recollections from a court trial, remorse. If students prefer, they may write a story, letter, or diary entry from the perspective of one of the accused, or from a judge or other court official. Again, the writing should be relevant to the historical event. Use these stories as an insight into the depth of understanding students have about the experience of the Salem Witch Trials. Students should either orally present their work or provide a written essay justifying the choices they made in their entry. What historical evidence supports their viewpoint?

Extending The Lesson

  • As a possible introductory activity before examining life in Puritan New England (in Activity 1), have your students analyze their own belief systems so that they can better see the similarities and differences between their culture and that of Salem at this time. Ask your students to write down what they know about the religion to which they ascribe, or the rules that they have to follow as a result of being a part of their particular cultural heritage or society. This may be a good take-home activity, in which parents can also be involved. See attached sample worksheet: What are the Cultures that Shape You?
  • If you wish to enter the realm of historical fiction, a younger audience (ages 9–11) might appreciate The Witch of Blackbird Pond by Elizabeth George Speare. A more mature audience might appreciate The Crucible by Arthur Miller, or even The Scarlett Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne. EDSITEment has a lesson plan on The Crucible, Dramatizing History in Arthur Miller's The Crucible.
Selected EDSITEment Websites

The Basics

Time Required

4-6 class periods

Subject Areas
  • History and Social Studies > U.S. > AP US History
  • History and Social Studies > U.S. > Colonization and Settlement (1585-1763)
  • History and Social Studies > Place > The Americas
  • History and Social Studies > World > The Modern World (1500 CE-Present)
  • History and Social Studies > People > Women
  • History and Social Studies > Themes > Religion
  • Critical analysis
  • Critical thinking
  • Developing a hypothesis
  • Discussion
  • Evaluating arguments
  • Historical analysis
  • Interpretation
  • Making inferences and drawing conclusions
  • Textual analysis
  • Using primary sources
  • Writing skills


Activity Worksheets
Student Resources