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Lesson Plans for Teaching The Crucible in the Context of McCarthyism

Updated on September 2, 2012

Arthur Miller’s 1953 drama, The Crucible is, beloved by English teachers and students alike. This play, one of my personal favorite plays to teach, is a mainstay in the American literature English curriculum. Even better, the drama's New England setting and witch-hunt plot make it perfect for a fall.

There are a number of ways to focus the instruction of The Crucible. I've tried teaching it a number of different ways; it can be used to teach literary devices such as allegory, symbolism, and characterization. It can be studied as an example of tragedy, or it can be taught as an example of Puritan culture.

However, I think the best approach to studying The Crucible is by exploring the historical context in which it was written. The drama has clear parallels with the McCarthy era of 1950s America.

The Crucible lesson plans and activities below engage high school students by uniting the text with the ideas of McCarthyism and "the red scare."

Pre-Reading Lesson for The Crucible

One of my favorite pre-reading activities (for any work of literature) is using an activity called a think-pair-share.

A think-pair-share is designed so that the teacher will ask a series of thought provoking questions relating to theme of a text. The goal of these questions is to make the theme relevant to the real world. Students will, individually respond by writing a paragraph. They will then, in pairs, share their thoughts before we discuss as a whole group. The objective here is that students have an opportunity to refine their ideas multiple times.

Here is how I structure the think-pair-share pre-reading activity for Miller's The Crucible:

Before beginning The Crucible, I ask the class to brainstorm instances in which they can recall organized attacks on individuals or specific groups of people. They will write these thoughts in the form of a paragraph. They then work in pairs to shair their thoughts before I ask for volunteers to discuss as a whole group. We then discuss what we believe motivates the victimizers in these circumstances.

After our discussion, I give a PowerPoint presentation on Arthur Miller’s biography and McCarthyism. The goal is for students to understand the cause and effects of the red scare and Miller as a liberal artist.

Lastly, I ask the class to consider the following (either in class, if time, or as homework): Though we are just beginning our study of this unit, answer this question in a short paragraph, we’ll come back to it again at the end of the unit. “Why do you think McCarthyism still studied today?”

Lesson Plan Teaching Allegory in The Crucible

After we finish reading Act I, I introduce the concept of a literary allegory with a short lecture.

In The Crucible Arthur Miller has written a literary allegory in which what is occurring in the plot (the Salem witch trials) all symbolic for what is occurring in the 1950s (McCarthyism).

I then task my students with conducting a close read of the first Act. They will look back through the drama in order to find proof that The Crucible is an allegory for McCarthyism. Each student should find two direct quotations from the text (and properly cite) that show a parallel between the witch hunt of 1692 and McCarthyism.

Lesson Plan for Act II of The Crucible

After reading Act II, students will jot down some notes to the following questions:

  • How would you describe the atmosphere of Salem at this point?
  • What are the fears of the townspeople?
  • Are these fears justified?
  • Whom do you believe holds the majority of the power at this point in the drama? Do you trust this person?

As a class, we will watch select scenes from the film Goodnight and Goodluck (2005, which I will explain is a film about the McCarthy era.

While we watch the movie, students will keep a log-line in which they will compare and contrast the atmosphere of Salem in The Crucible with that in the film.

After finishing, we’ll discuss that both the film and the drama depict feelings of fear and paranoia typical of the McCarthy period. In the film, we saw these feelings lead to a sense of conformity and then, eventually, rebellion. I’ll ask students to predict whether they believe this will also serve true for the characters in The Crucible, and if so—who?

Lesson Plan for the Conclusion of The Crucible

After students have finished reading the entire play, I remind the class of a question I asked them on our first day of the unit: "why do we still study McCarthyism?"

I tell them that today, now that they have spent time studying McCarthyism and reading Miller's The Crucible, they will answer this question again and we will compare how their responses have changed--if at all.

In class, they will reanswer this question in one complete paragraph (I urge them to draw upon what we have studied in class as well as personal experiences or observations to form a basis for their opinion).

In another paragraph I ask them to answer these question: Why do you believe we still study Arthur Miller's The Crucible? Why is it still relevant (if you believe it is)? For this question, I urge them to include quotes from the text (properly cited) to support their assertions.


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    • Tim Truzy info4u profile image

      Tim Truzy 

      23 months ago from U.S.A.

      Excellent article. I studied the "Crucible" in high school and our teacher used similar strategies. Working with elementary school children, I always try to get them to relate ideas of today with what happened in our history. Thank you.

    • donnah75 profile image

      Donna Hilbrandt 

      7 years ago from Upstate New York

      I also teach The Crucible. Last year, I didn't spend as much time on McCarthyism. Instead I focused on the Puritan aspect. I realized during summer review with a student who was preparing for the US History exam that it may be important to put more focus on the subject. I am going to take that route this year.

      Good discussion of one of my favorites. Voted up.


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