Teaching Huck Finn

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Teaching Huck Finn

Laine Edwards

As someone who will be teaching high school English next year in a classroom of low-income, minority students, I am interested in how literature can be used to broach difficult and often taboo topics such as race and discrimination. Mark Twain's novel, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, deals very specifically, although subtlety, with both of these issues. Twain's use of the word "nigger" and his portrayal of the black characters in the novel make Huck Finn a prime text for exploring issues of race in the classroom. In this lesson plan I will first explain the type of classroom community that I believe necessary to have productive and fruitful discussion about race. I will then continue by outlining three activities that will engage the students in discussion with each other as well as provoking them to think introspectively about the ways in which race has impacted their lives. Finally, I will finish the lesson plan with an essay prompt that ties together the discussion of race in Huck Finn with the greater implications I would like the book to have for the students in their communities. My intention with the creation of this lesson plan is to teach The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn in a way that sparks a dialogue between students and encourages them to continue discussing and thinking about race beyond the classroom in a positive way.
The Classroom Community:
Before even broaching such a controversial topic as race I believe that it is first essential to take stock of the type of community fostered within the classroom. In order for any discussion of race to be productive, an atmosphere of mutual respect must first be established. I will respect my students, my students will respect me, but most importantly, my students need to respect each other. Students must feel comfortable enough in the classroom to express their opinions without fear of ridicule. Additionally, students must be able to express dissenting opinions while at the same time showing consideration for the opinions of others. In order to create such a community in my classroom I believe it is necessary to involve students in the process. Before beginning discussion about issues of race in Huck Finn I will have a discussion with my students about how they feel respectful discussion should be conducted. From there, I will ask the class to come up together with a few guidelines (i.e., do not interrupt while another student is speaking) to help facilitate a courteous dialogue. By fostering a classroom community that focuses on mutual respect and consideration for others, my students will learn how to discuss difficult issues in a way that promotes continued dialogue within the community.
The Activities:
1. To begin a discussion of race in Huck Finn I will first write the word "nigger" on the blackboard. Instead of immediately asking students to speak, I will ask them to sit quietly in their seats and think about the word written on the board. After approximately a minute I will invite students to come up to the board, without talking, and write their thoughts or feelings. To start things off I will write the word "contextual" on the board. After all the students have written on the board I will ask for volunteers to start the discussion. My hope is that the students will be inspired to discuss their experiences with the word, whether it be how they have heard the word used, how they themselves use the word or how the word has impacted their own lives.
My hope for this exercise is that it will jumpstart a dialogue about race in the student's own lives. Our discussion together will create a base for further conversations about the way race functions in Huck Finn. In order to delve into the text and look specifically at how the word "nigger" operates within the story, I feel it is necessary to ground the word in a real-life context, such as the lives of my students. Making these connections between literature and real life will
2. To continue our discussion of race in Huck Finn I will ask my students to look specifically at how the word "nigger" functions with the text. I believe the word functions in several different ways, each of which highlights a different aspect of the way race functions within the novel. When describing blacks, such as the people who come to hear Jim's stories, or even Jim himself, white characters freely use the word "nigger" to connote their superiority over blacks. To emphasize this use of the word I will point students to the end of chapter fifteen when Huck says, "It was fifteen minutes before I could work myself up to go humble myself to a nigger" (82). Huck clearly believes himself to be above apologizing to Jim for the simple reason that he is white and Jim is black. I will then ask students how they feel the word "nigger" is used in the text and if its use in the text is similar to the way the word is present in their own lives. In drawing these comparisons I hope students will see an example of the works of literature can relate to the text of their own lives. Although the use of the word "nigger" in Huck Finn is only one example of the word in a historical context, it provides students with a base with which to explore other works of literature that might further their understanding of issues of race.
3. Once my students have examined Huck Finn through the use of specific words such as "nigger," as well as looked at the historical context of the character Jim, I will ask them to bring the text back to the present and think about the impact slavery still has on our society today. I would argue that it still has an extremely large impact on people of all races, however, I will be interested to hear the perspective of my student's as they come from different racial and class backgrounds. For this activity I will ask my students to gather newspaper articles, song lyrics, pictures, personal testimonies, poems, and other works of literature giving evidence as to either why they do or do not believe that slavery still has an impact on American society today.
I am particularly interested in this third activity of my lesson plan because this is a theme that we have been struggling with for the whole semester in my African American Literature class. We did not come to any concrete solutions in this class; however, we all did agree that slavery does still impact how we live today. Where we had difficulties making distinctions was in the degree to which we felt the institution of slavery affected different racial groups. Obviously slavery affects blacks differently than whites, but can we place any sort of value on who feels the negative effects to a greater degree? In my class I would steer away from pitting black against white and instead focus on the way that both races feel the effects of slavery. If time permitted, I think it would be worthwhile to have a discussion with the class about solutions to some of the problems that they identified
Final Essay:
For the student's final assignment I will ask them to write a letter to the school board either in favor of, or against, teaching The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn in school. I am not so much interested in which answer the students give, but rather I am interested in how students support the answer they give. I will ask students to support their argument with quotes from the texts, examples from class discussions, and their own perspectives on how reading Huck Finn and discussing it in a classroom setting either positively or negatively affected their feelings about race in our society. It is my hopes that students will be inspired by our discussion of Huck Finn and write an impassioned letter describing how the novel has allowed them to discuss a loaded topic in a way that is thoughtful and productive.
I am a firm believer in the power of literature to bring different people together and help them discuss difficult topics. Within the classroom, literature is an especially effective tool for getting students to have a dialogue about issues that directly affect them in their lives. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn deals very specifically with issues of race and also provides a historical context through which students can learn about slavery and the effect it still has on their own lives today. In asking students to write a letter to the school board either in favor of or against the teaching of Huck Finn in schools, I hope that students will think about the ways in a reading of the book has contributed to their education. Ultimately, I hope reading and discussing Huck Finn will teach students about the importance of respectful discussion about difficult topics.

Twain, Mark. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. New York: Barnes & Noble, Inc., 1996.

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