Teacher's Guide: The Witch of Blackbird Pond
ABOUT THIS BOOK
When her grandfather dies, Katherine "Kit" Tyler is forced to leave a carefree life on Barbados to go and live with her aunt, the only family that she has left. Kit arrives at the Connecticut Colony in April of 1687 and is dismayed by the bleak landscape. Her misgivings deepen as she is introduced to the Puritan ways of her new family, and she soon finds herself at odds with Aunt Rachel and Uncle Matthew--and the entire community. When she tries to escape the oppressive surroundings of her new home, Kit encounters the Widow Tupper, a Quaker who is believed to practice witchcraft. The friendship between Kit and Widow Tupper grows, but not without consequences. Kit is accused of being a witch simply because of her association with the widow, known to all as the Witch of Blackbird Pond.
Prejudice -- Kit learns that people fear or dislike her because she is different. They distrust Hannah Tupper for the same reason. How is Hannah different from her neighbors? How is Kit different? How does being different contribute to Kit and Hannah's friendship? Ask students to consider how prejudices are formed. Have them write in their journals about a time when they have judged someone or been judged based on physical appearance.
Family and Relationships -- Kit enjoyed an easygoing and warm relationship with her grandfather when he was alive. They were openly affectionate with one another. Kit is startled to discover that her aunt and uncle have different ideas about relationships and communication. Have students compare and contrast Kit's relationship with her grandfather to that with her new family.
Honesty -- Kit doesn't tell her aunt and uncle that she is visiting Hannah Tupper's house. She knows that they will forbid her to go. Yet Kit also knows that Hannah depends upon her for her well-being. Ask students to discuss whether it is ever right to be dishonest with one's family. How else could Kit have handled this situation so that she could be more truthful and still fulfill her commitment to Hannah Tupper?
Dealing with Handicaps -- Mercy is left handicapped after a childhood illness. Have students locate references to Mercy's handicap in the novel. How does Mercy deal with her physical limitations? How do others treat her? Describe what Mercy's life would be like if she were living today.
History -- After reading the novel, ask the class to describe the role of women and children in 1687. Send students to the library to research the following topics: the education of women, the use of arranged marriages, and theories regarding the discipline of children.
Also of note historically is the discussion of the charter of the colony. What was the charter and why was it of such importance? Why did some settlers wish for closer ties to England and the king while others longed for more freedom? How did the "mother country" keep her ties to the "new world"?
Mercy and Kit operate a "dame" school for the children in their community. Ask students to refer to the chapters in the novel that describe the typical lessons conducted there (chapters 9 and 10). How did students learn to read? What books were available to them for practice? What skills were considered necessary for their future? Ask students to compare and contrast their school's curriculum with that of the "dame" school. Students might also speculate how schools 100 or more years from now will be different from schools today.
Science -- In 1687, food and material for clothing had to be cultivated. What animals were of the most value to the early colonists? What crops were essential and why? How was sheep's wool processed to make fabric for new clothes? Students can refer to the novel to document the steps in this process. Send students to the library to research early inventions that contributed to the clothing and food industries.
Language Arts -- Speare introduces characters in the opening chapters who reappear to play pivotal roles later in the story. As students read, have them keep a chart of the characters, noting when they reappear in the plot and the roles they play throughout the novel. Discuss whether there is a character that might be eliminated. They should justify their answers.
While Kit finds the treatment of children bewildering in Connecticut, she is surprised that colonists find her view on slavery as appalling. This use of irony is not an isolated example. Later in the novel, Kit refers to Hannah Tupper's home as a sanctuary, though others in her community label Tupper as evil. Speare uses paradox and irony to underscore the themes of the story. This sophisticated literary device is essential for students to understand in order to make the reading of this book rewarding. Present the concept of irony to the students and ask them to locate other instances of its use in the novel.
Art -- Have students construct "horn books" (an excellent description may be found in chapter 9). Suggest that they write with ink made from natural products. If possible, invite someone to the class to demonstrate carding wool and spinning thread.
Teaching Ideas prepared by Teri S. Lesesne, Assistant Professor of Library Science, Sam Houston State University, Huntsville, Texas.
Suggested Classroom Activities
The Witch of Blackbird Pond is historical fiction. The story takes place in April of 1687 in the Connecticut Colony. Ask students to brainstorm what they know about the early American colonies. How were children treated during this time? What role did women play in this society? What did the Puritans believe? How was this different from what Quakers and other religious groups professed? Divide the class into several groups and assign each group a different facet of the culture of this time period to investigate. For example, groups might find information about clothing, music, religion, government, education, farming, and social events. Ask each group to share their information with the class.
Vocabulary/Use of Language
The opening chapters of the book provide some detail about the sailing vessel upon which Kit arrives in Connecticut. Students may wish to look up information about various nautical terms such as brigantine, forecastle deck, and rigging (p. 7), deadlights (p. 9), and aft (p. 12). Students may also be encouraged to write down other unfamiliar words and attempt to define them using the context of the story.
"Strong plot, fully-realized characters, and convincing atmosphere distinguish this historical narrative of a girl whose rebellion against bigotry and her Puritan surroundings culminates in a witch hunt and trial." --Booklist
"This book has a lively plot and excellent characterizations. The background has every dimension of reality." --The New York Times
A Newbery Medal Book
An ALA Notable Children's Book
OTHER TITLES OF INTEREST
Calico Bush by Rachel Field (historical fiction)
I Am Regina by Sally M. Keehn (historical fiction)
Shiloh by Phyllis Reynolds Naylor (honesty)
ABOUT THIS GUIDE
In the Classroom
Using The Witch of Blackbird Pond in the Classroom
The Witch of Blackbird Pond ties naturally into an interdisciplinary study for intermediate students. This teaching guide suggests various thematic connections and provides teaching activities for social studies, science, and language arts classes. In addition, students can examine literary elements such as character, setting, plot, and conflict. As students come to know Kit Tyler and the other characters in this novel, they will recognize once again the important role that family relationships play in all of our lives. We hope that you will find this guide for The Witch of Blackbird Pond by Elizabeth George Speare a useful tool for your classroom.