Featured Article: “She Was Declared a Witch at Salem. These Middle Schoolers Want to Clear Her Name.” By Neil Vigdor
In 1693, Elizabeth Johnson Jr., a young woman living in what is now North Andover, Mass., was convicted of witchcraft. Unlike the vast majority of other people who were wrongfully convicted at the Salem witch trials, Ms. Johnson’s conviction was never overturned. This year, an eighth grade civics class set out to clear her name.
In this lesson, you will learn about the Salem witch trials and how a group of middle schoolers put their civics skills to the test in an effort to exonerate Ms. Johnson. Then, you will write a letter supporting or opposing a bill that could rewrite history.
Jot down what you know about the Salem witch trials. What were they? Where did they happen? Why did they happen? Who was often accused of being a “witch”? How were the accused treated?
Then, watch this two-minute video from NBC Learn and add at least three more key facts about the witch trials to your list:
Questions for Writing and Discussion
Read the article, then answer the following questions:
1. Summarize the life of Elizabeth Johnson Jr. in a few sentences. Based on the article, why might she have been convicted of witchcraft? What does that tell you about the fears or prejudices held by people during that time period?
2. Carrie LaPierre, the teacher of the eighth grade civics class at North Andover Middle School taking up Ms. Johnson’s cause, said they were learning about “acceptance” in class. Why might learning about acceptance be important in a class about government? How might it relate to the Salem witch trials?
3. In what ways did the witch trials affect the communities of Salem and the surrounding towns? What effect did it have on Ms. Johnson’s family?
4. According to Emerson W. Baker, a history professor at Salem State University in Massachusetts, what are some of the reasons that people were so afraid of the idea of witches?
5. What efforts have been made over time to right the wrongs of the Salem witch trials? Do you think these actions are enough? Why or why not?
6. How was Ms. LaPierre’s class able to learn from the process of trying to exonerate Ms. Johnson? Would you be interested in learning about the government through a project like this?
In March, State Senator Diana DiZoglio, who had been working with Ms. LaPierre’s class, introduced a bill to clear Elizabeth Johnson Jr.’s name. You can read it here.
Do you support or oppose the exoneration of Ms. Johnson? Why? Write a letter to Ms. DiZoglio explaining your position. In your letter, make a clear case for why you support or oppose the bill and use examples from the featured article or your own research to help convince the legislature to take your side. Then, if you like, you can send your letter to Ms. DiZoglio’s office.
Additional Teaching and Learning Opportunities
Consider the meaning of historical, and contemporary, “witch hunts.” What does that term mean to you? What do you think of when you hear it? Watch this video on the history of witch hunts. Then, take a look at any of these three examples of modern-day “witch hunts”:
“What a Witch Hunt Really Looks Like,” a guest essay on former President Donald J. Trump’s invocation of the term during the investigation into Russian interference
“Fighting Modern-Day Witch Hunts in India’s Remote Northeast,” a four-minute video about accusations that have led to violence against women
“Memories of a Real ‘Witch Hunt,’” one woman’s story of her father, who was swept up in the anti-communism sentiment of the 1950s, which many considered a “witch hunt”
What connections can you make to the origins of witch hunts or the Salem witch trials? What other examples of modern-day “witch hunts” can you come up with? What further questions does the term raise for you?
Learn about the reclamation of the “witch” label. Read an article about witches in popular culture, an interview with a Brooklyn-based witch, or a personal narrative on what it means to be a witch. Do you identify with being “witchy” in any way? Are there people in your family or community who are proud of the ways they are able to heal or help others with witchcraft or supernatural powers?