Teaching Huck Finn to Low-Income Students

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Teaching Huck Finn to Low-Income Students

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, 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, in my opinion, a prime text for exploring issues of race in the classroom. Through this paper I hope to establish the way reading can positively affect the achievement of low income students. Additionally, the creation of a community structure between students, parents, and teachers will help students to feel more comfortable with their learning, thereby increasing their achievement 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. It is my hope that this community will extend outside the classroom to include the students' families. 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 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.
Although my personal belief is that literature is a wonderful tool for beginning a dialogue about difficult topics as well as for bridging gaps between people, I realize that my almost blind faith in the ability of Huck Finn to do this is somewhat na´ve. The probability that the vast majority of my students will be black creates a clear racial divide between my students and me. My own background as a white, upper-class woman will challenge both me and my students in the ways that we will be able to relate to each other. The most important way that I see to combat my own na´vetÚ is to remember that I also have much to learn from my students and that I must be humble about learning from their experiences as well as my own.
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.
My initial belief about creating such a community in my classroom is that it is necessary to include students in the process. After reading an article by Jerome E. Morris entitled, "Bonding Black Students, Families, and Community Socioculturally," about the importance of communal bonding between students, families, and teachers, however, I feel that student discussion of community is only one step in the process of creating a respectful community. In his article, Morris examines a predominately African-American school in St. Louis, Missouri. He asserts that the reason for the school's continued success at producing high-achieving students is the way "school personnel have communally bonded with African-American families and the surrounding community to foster an academically supportive environment for the predominately African-American and low-income students" (31). Morris also cites the shared African-American cultural heritage of students, families, and teachers as yet another reason that the community bond is so strong. Morris' article presents a valid argument about the importance of involving the families of students in the classroom community that I create and after reading his article I believe that I must take an alternate approach to creating a respectful community in my classroom.
In his article, Morris makes the point that for most students attending school in low-income urban areas, "life is filled with the day-today challenges of sustaining employment, curtailing crime and violence in their neighborhood, and mitigating the impact of structural forces such as racism and classism" (36). Before beginning a discussion about issues of race in Huck Finn I will have a discussion with my students about how they define respect. What I would traditionally consider disrespectful (i.e. interrupting another student, raising ones' voice) may not be considered disrespectful by my students. I do believe, however that it is important to talk with students how they feel a respectful discussion should be conducted according to their own definitions of respect. From there I will ask students to come up together with a few guidelines to help facilitate a courteous dialogue. By fostering a classroom community that focuses on mutual respect and consideration for others, I hope that my students will learn how to discuss difficult issues in a way that promotes continued dialogue within the community.
I struggle with devising a way to invite parents to participate in both the classroom community and the discussion of Huck Finn with my students. As Morris points out, the students, families, and teachers all shared a common cultural bond that brought them together. I am not privy to this cultural heritage and I am unsure of the best approach for finding myself a place in this community. As of right now, I believe the best strategy is to be humble and to value the culture and experiences of my students as much as I value my own. Although I am in the classroom to teach my students, I feel that in order to better teach them I must let them teach me about their culture and 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 in the hope that students will recognize that the word has various meanings depending on the context in which it is used. 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, although I realize my own na´vetÚ in this hope. I recognize that my skin color combined with my position of "power" at the front of the classroom could create an uncomfortable environment in which students are not willing to share their opinions or thoughts. I hope that I will be able to establish a degree of trust between myself and my students so that 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 hopefully allow my students to see the ways in which reading can help them achieve.
In an article entitled "Influences on Reading in Low-Income Students," Jeanne S. Chall and Catherine E. Snow outline the ways in which effective teachers increase their students' achievement through reading. Although their particular study focused on elementary school children I believe that many of the theories that they provide for improving reading ability extend past elementary school. Chall and Snow assert that successful teachers use "both direct and indirect methods for teaching word meanings, recognition of hard words, and reading comprehension. [...] They also provided students many opportunities to use these skills in a variety of new situations, including materials that challenged them" (55). I consider Huck Finn to be a challenging text, not so much in terms of vocabulary, but in the levels of depth to the text. Reading Huck Finn will challenge my students' abilities to read for comprehension.
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 to give examples of how they feel the word "nigger" is used in the text and if its use is similar to the way the word is present in their own lives.
In drawing these comparisons or contrasts as the case may be, I hope students will see just how works of literature can relate to their text of their own lives. My initial thought that relating their lives to literature would always be a positive experience for students; however, in rethinking this I understand that literature is not always helpful. Just as it has the ability to bridge the gaps between people, it has the equal capacity to problematize relationships. 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 students as they come from different racial and class backgrounds and this is an ideal situation in which I can learn from my students. 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. In asking students to bring in outside materials relating to the greater themes of race and slavery that we have been discussing in class, I hope to, as Chall and Snow recommend, increase my students' reading comprehension ability by giving them the opportunity to use their skills in a variety of situations.
Additionally, like Morris, Chall and Snow discuss the importance of parent-teacher contact for the benefit of students. This third activity is ideal for encouraging students to engage with their community through interviews or research about how their own community has specifically been affected by racism. By encouraging students to go into their communities to gather materials for this third activity of the lesson plan, I hope that they will talk to their parents and engage their families. I believe that this is one possible way to invite families into our classroom to participate in a discussion with us. At the same time, however, I realize that race is a loaded topic and that I could be setting myself up for an uncomfortable situation.
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 attempt to steer away from pitting black against white in any discussion of slavery that we had. Again I understand that I might possibly be setting myself up for an uncomfortable situation if I am the only white person in a classroom of blacks, or even if there are only one or two other white students in the classroom. Part of my responsibility as an educator will be to ensure to the best of my ability that all of my students feel comfortable in my classroom. To a degree, I worry that engaging in a discussion of race and slavery will only highlight the class differences between myself and my students, causing the gap between us to grow even larger and make it even more difficult for me to reach out to them.
Depending on the quality of the discussion had in the classroom, I think it would be worthwhile to have a discussion with the class about solutions to some of the problems that they identified. Rather than make such solutions applicable to the problems of racism throughout this country, I believe it would be more appropriate to focus on how their solutions could be applied to the smaller groups of the school community or our classroom community. Again, this is an opportunity in which it might be valuable to integrate students' families into the discussion, depending on the quality of the students' discussion up to this point.
Final Essay:
For the students' final assignment I will ask them to write a letter to the school board either in favor of, or against, teaching 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. In their letters I will ask students to address how our discussions of race within their communities have affected them, whether it be a positive or negative experience. Although it is my hope that students will be inspired by our discussion of Huck Finn and write an impassioned letter to the school board describing how the novel has allowed them to discuss a loaded topic in a way that is thoughtful and productive, I recognize that there is a strong possibility that my expectations might not be met.
Conclusion:
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. If Adventures of Huckleberry Finn was to be part of the curriculum I was teaching next year, I am not sure that I could resist the opportunity to use the text to bring issues of racism to light through literature. 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.
In writing this paper I have realized that my approach to teaching in a classroom of low-income, African-American students is extremely na´ve. Although I only have the best of intentions in using Huck Finn as a means to discuss issues of race and slavery, I know that it could quite possibly backfire on me. I am excited about teaching next year and would love to have the opportunity to teach Huck Finn because I enjoyed the book so much and took a lot away from it. I know, however, that my experiences with the novel have been shaped by the experiences I have had in my life, experiences that are very different from the experiences of my students. Ultimately, I know that I am na´ve in expecting any lesson that I plan to go perfectly or that my goals for my students will be achieved with ease, yet I cannot help but believe that my na´vetÚ is in some ways a strength for the way that it allows me to be hopeful about the effect I might have on the achievement of my students.

Chall, Jeanne. S and Catherine E. Snow. "Influence on Reading in Low-Income Students" The Education Digest 54:1 (1988): 53.

Morris, Jerome E. "Bonding Black Students, Families, and Community Socioculturally." The Education Digest. 68:5 (2003): 30.

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


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