Target Grade Level / Age Range:

Grades 9-12


55 minutes

Virtual Learning:

Use this document to convert the lesson into a virtual learning module for your students. Use the steps outlined to create the different elements of a Google Classroom or other online learning platform. You can also send the steps directly to students in a PDF, present them in a virtual meeting, or plug them into any other virtual learning module system. 


This lesson is designed to supplement a high school English class reading The Crucible or a high school history class studying the Salem Witch Trials. Students will understand one theory of the cause of the witch trials and how they could have been prevented.


  • Samples of wheat and/or rye
  • Samples of ergot (contact local extension service or land grant university)
  • Flip chart paper
  • Markers
  • Computers or tablets (at least one for every two students)
  • Note cards
  • Pens/pencils

Suggested Companion Resources (books and websites)

Vocabulary (with definitions)

  • Ergot – parasitic fungus of cereal grasses like rye or wheat
  • Foodborne illness – illness or poisoning resulting from the food spoilage of contaminated food from a pathogenic bacterium, virus, or parasite. Chemical or natural toxins can also lead to foodborne illnesses
  • Mycotoxins – toxic substance produced by mold or other fungi
  • Presumptive test - analysis of a sample which establishes either: The sample is definitely not a certain substance. The sample probably is the substance.

Background – Agricultural Connections (what would a teacher need to know to be able to teach this content)

The Crucible is a 1953 play by American playwright Arthur Miller. It is a dramatized and partially fictionalized story of the Salem witch trials that took place in the Massachusetts Bay Colony during 1692-93. The play and later movie focus on the drama of the characters as girls accused of witchcraft lay blame on others in the village for their behavior. There is a theory that their behavior could have had a biological explanation. Weather and other factors could have promoted the growth of a fungus called ergot on the wheat supply. This fungus is known to cause hallucinations and other abnormal behavior when ingested.

Interest Approach or Motivator

In a previous class, students should have read the book The Crucible, performed the play, watched the movie, or in some other way have been exposed to and become familiar with the Salem Witch Trials.

Historians still wonder what caused the bizarre behavior that led eight young girls to be suspected of demonic possession and witchcraft during the winter of 1691 in Salem, Massachusetts. One girl after another went into convulsions, babbled incoherently, and complained of creepy skin sensations. Doctors could find nothing wrong with them, and the best explanation medical science had to offer was that a witch cast a spell over the girls. Could there be a better explanation than witchcraft?

Have students watch The Crucible SparksNotes video: OR The Crucible movie dance scene: to refresh their memories of the storyline.


  1. Have the class divide into four groups. Hand out copies of the Season of the Witch reading to two groups. Hand out copies of Ergot of Rye to the other two groups. Each group should read the material to become familiar with it. On a piece of flip chart paper have them develop their key learnings from the reading that they will present to the rest of the class. This can be in picture form, written bullet points, or any other form the group wants
  2. Have each group present their findings to the rest of the class.
  3. Summarize the key learning points of each group’s presentation through facilitated class discussion and have students capture the following information in their notebooks.
    1. What is Ergot?
      1. Toxic fungus that affects rye and contaminates bread could explain the girl’s bizarre behavior
      2. A parasitic fungus that attaches itself to a flowering cereal grass like rye or wheat
      3. Flourishes in damp conditions
      4. Forms a hardened mass called a sclerotium on its host and can nurture dormant spores until conditions are just right to release them
      5. Millions of ergot spores can be harvested with a rye or wheat crop
      6. Bread made from the crop can contain enough fungus to infect whoever eats it
    2. Symptoms of Ergot poisoning
      1. Alkaloids in ergot constrict blood vessels causing seizures, nausea, uterine contractions, and eventually gangrene and death
      2. Albert Hofmann extracted lysergic acid from ergot to make LSD
      3. People infected with ergotism had bad LSD-like trips including hysteria, hallucinations, and a feeling of something crawling on their skin
      4. Records back to the Middle Ages show that from time to time entire villages would succumb to mysterious illness. Villagers would dance in the streets, go into convulsions, and eventually collapse
      5. The ‘dancing mania’ was sometimes called St. Anthony’s fire – a possible reference to the burning sensation victims felt, gangrenous blisters, and peeling skin
      6. Disease is believed to have killed over 50,000 people
      7. Livestock infected by eating the diseased grain lost their hooves, tails, and ears before dying
    3. Food safety regulations
      1. Relationship between the behaviors and ergot were discovered in Europe in the late 1600s. The news likely did not reach the colonies before the Salem witch trials
      2. Rye farmers can rinse their crop in a salt solution to kill the ergot fungus
  4. Different types of molds or fungi can affect different crops. In modern food production, molds and other foodborne illnesses are screened for so that they don’t infect people consuming the food. This is done in a variety of ways. As one example, today we are going to look at aflatoxin in corn.
  5. Have students individually or in pairs access this website on computer or tablet with internet access.
  6. Have students work through the virtual lab proceedings to test for aflatoxins.
  7. Conclude class by having students create an exit ticket. Give each student a note card. On the note card they should pick three questions to answer (write the questions on the board so students can refer back to them):
    1. Is ergotism a legitimate theory to explain the behaviors of the girls in the Salem Witch Trials? Why or why not? Justify your response.
    2. Why is food safety important?
    3. How do modern food companies and scientists monitor food supplies and ensure food safety? Provide at least one example.
    4. What other food safety inspection processes are you familiar with? Describe one.
    5. What foodborne contaminants are you familiar with? How could they be prevented?
    6. How have food safety concerns changed the way that we try to keep food safe?

Essential Files (maps, charts, pictures, or documents)

Extension Activities (how students can carry this beyond the classroom)

  • Have students mill fresh wheat or rye berries to produce flour. Have students bake a loaf bread using that flour. A sample recipe can be found here:
  • Schedule a guest speaker from the school cafeteria or local restaurant to discuss the importance of food safety and the food safety procedures that they practice.
  • Schedule a tour of a local food production company (possibly a bakery) do discuss the food safety procedures that they practice.
  • Ask students to rewrite one scene of the play The Crucible set in modern times. Assume that we know about ergotism and its effect on human behavior. How might the play have turned out differently?
  • Have students do research into food safety regulations and write a one-page paper on their findings.


Wicked Plants by Amy Stewart


Will Fett

Organization Affiliation

Iowa Agriculture Literacy Foundation

Agriculture Literacy Outcomes

  • T2.9-12.e. Identify inspection processes associated with food safety regulations
  • T3.9-12.h. Provide examples of foodborne contaminants, points of contamination, and the policies/agencies responsible for protecting the consumer
  • T4.9-12.a. Correlate historical events, discoveries in science, and technological innovations in agriculture with day-to-day life in various time periods
  • T5.9-12.g. Evaluate and discuss the impact of major agricultural events and agricultural inventions that influenced world and U.S. history

Common Core Connections

  • Science: HS-LS4-5. Evaluate the evidence supporting claims that changes in environmental conditions may result in: (1) increases in the number of individuals of some species, (2) the emergence of new species over time, and (3) the extinction of other species.
  • 21 st Century: 21.9–12.HL.1. Essential Concept and/or Skill: Demonstrate functional health literacy skills to obtain, interpret, understand and use basic health concepts to enhance personal, family, and community health.
  • 21 st Century: 21.9–12.HL.3. Essential Concept and/or Skill: Apply critical literacy/thinking skills related to personal, family and community wellness.
  • Literacy: RST.11–12.7. Integrate and evaluate multiple sources of information presented in diverse formats and media (e.g., quantitative data, video, multimedia) in order to address a question or solve a problem.
  • Literacy: RST.11–12.8. Evaluate the hypotheses, data, analysis, and conclusions in a science or technical text, verifying the data when possible and corroborating or challenging conclusions with other sources of information.
  • Literacy: RST.11–12.9. Synthesize information from a range of sources (e.g., texts, experiments, simulations) into a coherent understanding of a process, phenomenon, or concept, resolving conflicting information when possible.
  • Literacy: W.11–12.7. Conduct short as well as more sustained research projects to answer a question (including a self–generated question) or solve a problem; narrow or broaden the inquiry when appropriate; synthesize multiple sources on the subject, demonstrating understanding of the subject under investigation.
  • Literacy: W.11–12.9. Draw evidence from literary or informational texts to support analysis, reflection, and research.

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