This post was originally published on the HS Bits Blog, which was active from 2008-2013.
Many of us have had the pleasure of including American literature in our classes and never miss the chance to introduce the master, Mark Twain, to our wide-eyed, caffeine-, candy bar-, and chips-induced students “eager” to learn about yet another dead white guy. Considering they are nearing the end of their high school careers, it is our last chance (and duty) to share with them our love and respect for this man of satire; to pass on and remember Twain in all of his glory—especially now, one hundred years after his death, when it’s even more pressing that he and his works do not go unnoticed. But how can we possibly be expected to come up with something new, something now, and something wow for a story about a boy named Huck that many of us are teaching for the umpteenth time? How do we exude (not force) a sense of excitement, newness, and importance without sounding and acting like “Huckleberry drones”?
The following are some practical additions to your already outstanding insight and analysis on Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn:
Start this year’s unit with a quote exercise adapted from Amanda Christy Brown and Katherine Schulten’s lesson, “An American Wit: Approaching Mark Twain’s Life and Works.” This kinesthetic introduction to the legend, the man behind the quotes, will immediately pique the interest of even the most apathetic student. My students loved this activity and were surprised that all of the quotes were by the same man.
Now that you have their attention, move on to an auditory preamble with an NPR sound byte. Fortunately for us, Twain’s autobiography was released this year and many media venues have covered it. One story that provides an engaging next step from the quote exercise is NPR’s “The Autobiography of Mark Twain: Satire to Spare.” It gives students a taste of who Twain is, from the man himself, and introduces students to his sense of social commentary. You may also want to throw in a clip from this year’s Kennedy Center Mark Twain Prize for Humor, which was awarded to Tina Fey (my BFF—I wish!). A clip from this link would also work well at the end of the unit as evidence of the legacy that Twain has left behind.
The NPR clip not only offers an informative glimpse into Twain’s brilliance and insight, but also proposes several topics for in-class debate and discussion, including religion, politics and, of course, racism; hence providing a logical bridge from the life of Twain to the life of one of his most beloved characters, Huck. Students are immediately given a voice in the controversial, timeless issues of the book, encouraging them to stay involved and see where the text takes them. For discussion/debate prompts, use this PBS teaching guide. This site has tons (I’m serious—tons!) of prompts, activities, links, and so forth.
It is also necessary to acquaint students with some of the more pertinent historical events of that time. Before starting the novel, students complete Before Huck Stations. They pair up to complete various tasks, which introduce them to the Fugitive Slave Act, the Emancipation Proclamation, abolition, slavery, the judiciary system, nineteenth-century education, and so forth. Once students finish all of the tasks, they share their findings in an informal discussion or contest.
After weeks of reading and analyzing the novel, students finally complete the After Huck Stations. This gives students a posthumous overview of the novel, including a reflection on the Huck unit as a whole. This reflection is integral to how I teach the novel the following year. (Usually the only negative comment about the unit is the amount of nightly reading!)
Of course it wouldn’t be a literary unit without an essay, so I let students choose a topic from the Huck Finn Essay Topics (no more than three students per topic). Students read their essays aloud, while I and the rest of the class critique and offer feedback.
Finally, the best part: Yesterday on Today with B-U to the Nett as the host. Not quite Jerry Springer, but not as civilized as Oprah, this talk show brings out the hams. Students take on the persona of the characters from the book. Working together, a few students help each character prepare answers for predetermined questions. During the talk show, students must answer and act like the character. The audience scores them on how well they stay in character and the accuracy of their answers. The Mighty Mississippi (M-I-S-S-I-S-S-I-P-P-I) River is even a member of the panel. It’s a hilarious end to a four-week unit that, I think, would please Mark Twain himself.
Have fun on your journey down the river and let me know how it goes!