Witch Trials and the Power of Public Presentation in Westridge’s 8th Grade Humanities

The work at the recent 8th grade American Studies Showcase was powerful and creative. Parents, siblings, and friends were immersed in student-curated, designed, and led interactive pop-up museums about the Salem Witch Trials, Japanese American internment camps, McCarthyism, and Post 9/11 America, and heard original compositions scoring Arthur Miller’s play The Crucible. There was a reenactment of McCarthy trials that put spectators on the hot seat and a theatre in the round that put quite a few parents in the role of a falsely accused witch. It was clear the students had thought a great deal about the core themes of this area of study: the relationship between the individual and society and how power is negotiated. But for their teachers, Masami Hansen (English) and Jennifer Irish (History), the most important student learning came through the act of presenting their work in public.

“These are dynamic students, but even the most curious, self-motivated learners can get caught up in grades,” said Hansen. “With this Showcase, the stakes expanded and they cared about more than just grades. They wanted to represent their best self and they had to stand behind their work.”

As a result, the girls dove deep into learning and thinking about the information in new ways. Hansen said that in trying to look for moments of tension to interpret for their musical scores students examined the text of The Crucible more closely than they typically do to write an essay.

Irish thought the acts of reflection built into creating a public exhibit were perhaps its most valuable component as it is a skill we all need to develop. “We had a dress rehearsal with faculty members, and the girls learned about taking feedback, which is hard for all of us. Some realized they were defensive with the first round of feedback but later implemented changes and saw the purpose,” said Irish. “They were also very engaged in reflecting in class after the public event. For instance, they had thought in advance about the audience’s perspective and the flow of the exhibit, but afterward they talked about all of the things we hadn’t anticipated…for example, how to handle crowds, how museum goers would move from one museum to the next and were guests getting the message of the museum?”

One parent was overheard at the event saying, “I said of course I would come to see the museum, but this (turned out to be) so important.”

The event was a first-time project that is part of the updated English and Social Studies curricula in the 8th grade. Over the summer, Hansen and Irish revised the curricula to heighten its interdisciplinary elements and center its content on the themes of citizenship and what it means to be American in the 21st Century.

Click here for a photo gallery of the pop-up museums.
Click here to listen to the student musical compositions.
Click here for a video from the event.

Museum Exhibits:
Salem Witch Trials (Pit of Paranoia)
• Theatre in the round
• Presentations
• Vignettes
• Simulation with audience participation

Japanese American Internment (Humanity, Hope, and Healing)
• Presentations
• Virtual Reality of Camps
• Letters from survivors
• Artifacts
• Survivor Story
• Origami station

McCarthyism (Untold and Unfair)
• Presentations
• Simulation of Trials with audience participation

Post 9/11 America (Reaction and Taking Action)
• Simulation of Flight 93
• Survivor Stories
• Memorial to 9/11
• How to Heal Audience participation

Westridge School, 324 Madeline Drive, Pasadena, (626) 799-1053 ext. 200 or visit www.westridge.org.





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