Lesson Plans: Grades 9-12

Critical Ways of Seeing The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn in Context

Tools

The Lesson

Introduction

Depiction of Huckleberry Finn on 1917 sheet music cover

Depiction of Huckleberry Finn on 1917 sheet music cover

Credit: Courtesy of American Memory.

Huckleberry Finn opens with a warning from its author that misinterpreting readers will be shot. Despite the danger, readers have been approaching the novel from such diverse critical perspectives for 120 years that it is both commonly taught and frequently banned, for a variety of reasons. Studying both the novel and its critics with an emphasis on cultural context will help students develop analytical tools essential for navigating this work and other American controversies. This lesson asks students to combine internet historical research with critical reading. Then students will produce several writing assignments exploring what readers see in Huckleberry Finn and why they see it that way.

Guiding Questions

  • How does a critic's cultural context help explain his or her opinions about a book?
  • What influences in my cultural context help explain my opinions about a book?
  • How does acknowledging my opinions' origins in the culture around me, and recognizing that changes in culture cause changes in opinions, affect the way I state my opinion?

Learning Objectives

After completing this unit, students will be able to

  • Read and write literary criticism
  • Perform historical/biographical analysis of non-fiction works
  • Define cultural context and describe aspects of others' contexts as well as their own
  • Make inferences and develop the ability to provide convincing evidence to support their inferences

Preparation Instructions

  • "Cultural context" is a term that is used often and defined rarely. Consider before starting the lesson how you will define and use this term with your students. Particularly useful in defining culture for this lesson is Eric Miraglia's What Is Culture?, accessible through the EDSITEment-reviewed Internet Public Library and its link to the Popular Culture Association/American Culture Association site.
  • Review key aspects of cultural contexts that have had an impact on critics of Huckleberry Finn, particularly Victorian morality and more recent debates about race and high school literary selections. In addition to print sources on these topics, the following websites may be useful:

    On Victorian mores:
    While it is difficult to find sites that look at the Victorian era in an unromanticized way, these sites provide some unique perspectives:
  • Duke University's Ad*Access site, a link from the EDSITEment-reviewed History Matters site, provides an excellent look at popular culture through advertising.
  • Gonzaga University's A Brief Timeline of American Literature, Music and Movies, 1890-1929, a link also from the History Matters site, provides another look at late Victorian popular culture.

    On African-American status in the 19th century:
  • The most succinct site offering a glimpse of 19th century African-American life is The Time Line of African-American History, 1852-1925, which is part of the EDSITEment-reviewed Library of Congress American Memory Collection.
  • On the debates about race and Huckleberry Finn in high schools: Huckleberry Finn Debated, 1884-2001, edited by Jim Zwick and linked from the EDSITEment-reviewed Internet Public Library, is an excellent compendium of information and links on these debates. This site will be integral to students' work on this project.
  • See also Lesson 1 of the ArtsEdge curriculum unit on Mark Twain, The Lincoln of Our Literature: Lesson 1, Icon and Iconoclast
  • Review the literary critical essays on Huckleberry Finn that students will use in Activity 2 below. Determine whether you want to choose a small group of these essays for your students' use or let students choose from the whole set. You may want to download and print the essays if you choose to work with a subset of the available essays. Two sites contain a wealth of these essays: the EDSITEment-reviewed Mark Twain in His Times, which contains dozens of contemporary reviews of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn; and Huckleberry Finn Debated, 1884-2001, which contains reviews from Twain's contemporaries through the present day.
  • If appropriate or helpful, bookmark on computers students may be using the sites for literary essays and historical timelines.

a. The Time Line of African-American History, 1852-1925, which is part of the EDSITEment-reviewed Library of Congress American Memory Collection.
b. The National Women's History Project's A Timeline of the Women's Rights Movement 1848-1998, a link on the EDSITEment-reviewed History Matters site.
c. A Brief Timeline of American Literature, Music and Movies, 1890-1929, a link also on the History Matters site.
d. The 1900s Timeline, from About.com and accessible through the EDSITEment-reviewed Internet Public Library.
e. Harlem 1900-1940: Timeline, a timeline from the EDSITEment-reviewed Harlem 1900-1940: An African American Community.
f. Mark Twain in His Times: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn Contemporary Reviews, on the EDSITEment-reviewed Mark Twain in His Times.g. Huckleberry Finn Debated, 1884-2001, edited by Jim Zwick and linked from the EDSITEment-reviewed Internet Public Library.

  • This assignment asks students to refer to several Internet sources. You may want to review your expectations for citing sources and providing proof before the unit begins, or link to a page that gives guidelines for electronic citations, such as this one from Purdue University. It may also be helpful for students to see a rubric for their assessment early in the assignment.
  • Determine whether the cultural context of your classroom, most notably the school system and parental preferences, make it prudent for you to require parental permission before students explore this morally and racially challenging text.

Lesson Activities

Activity 1. Student critique

After reading The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, students write a short (200 to 400-word) critique, either of the novel in general or of a specific aspect of the novel. [See .pdf file, Introduction to Literary Criticism and Analysis for guidance on writing a critique]

  • Rationale: This will sharpen students’ familiarity with the book and with their own opinions of it. It will also help them to analyze other critics' work if they have engaged in the same kind of endeavor, and it will provide a later body of evidence in which they can detect their own biases and cultural influences.
  • Planning/Rubric: As you design your instructions for the critique assignment, consider whether you wish students to use "I" in expressing their opinions, and consider the requirements you will give them for providing evidence for their positions. The student-written critique can be useful for this unit whether it is informal and emphasizes students' feelings or more formal and requires substantial evidence from the novel to support those feelings.
Activity 2. Comparing and contrasting two reviews of Huckleberry Finn

Students then compare and contrast the ideas in two published critiques or reviews of the novel, ideally from two different authors and time periods, with their own opinions as expressed in their critiques.

  • Resources: Two comprehensive sources for criticism of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn are the EDSITEment-reviewed Mark Twain in His Times, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn Contemporary Reviews, and Huckleberry Finn Debated, 1884-2001, edited by Jim Zwick, a link from the EDSITEment-reviewed Internet Public Library.
  • Rationale: Considering their own ideas in the same way that they consider those of published critics will help students understand that all writers about a book are readers, and all individual readers notice and evaluate aspects of a text differently.
  • Planning:
    a. Consider whether you want to limit the number of critical essays students can choose from. You may also consider other ways of structuring students' choices: for example, do you want them to pick two reviews that disagree on similar issues? While the unit's goal of exposing students to a variety of cultural contexts is reinforced when students choose critical essays from different eras, you may also consider limiting students' choices to the same time period or issue.

    b. Consider how you want students to report their findings. Is a simple "Similarities and Differences" chart acceptable? Do you want them to write up their findings in paragraph form? Because the unit requires students to write several texts, a chart might be welcome at this stage.
Activity 3. The cultural context of each Huckleberry Finn reviewer

Students will then explore the cultural context of each critic whose work they are analyzing. They will look at contemporary historical events and social practices during the critic's life, governing such realms as race, gender, age and class-based roles in society.

  • Resources: The following EDSITEment-reviewed websites provide diverse information that will help students gain a sense of historical influences and social practices that may influence critics:

a. The Time Line of African-American History, 1852-1925, from the EDSITEment-reviewed American Memory Collection.

b. The National Women's History Project's A Timeline of the Women's Rights Movement 1848-1998, a link on the EDSITEment-reviewed History Matters site.

c. Gonzaga University's A Brief Timeline of American Literature, Music and Movies, 1890-1929 , a link from History Matters.

d. The 1900s Timeline, accessible through the EDSITEment-reviewed Internet Public Library.

e. Harlem 1900-1940: Timeline, a timeline from the EDSITEment-reviewed Harlem 1900-1940: An African American Community.

f. Duke University's Ad*Access site, a terrific look at popular culture through advertising, a link through History Matters.

  • Other Resources:

a. Consider how your school's history or social studies department could provide other resources for students; this may be a good opportunity for interdisciplinary cooperation.

b. As students find historical and social markers that may influence critics, it will be beneficial for them to note what did not happen or had not yet happened. This may influence their inferences in the next step. For example, how could the fact that the Civil Rights Movement did not happen until after Booker T. Washington's death explain some aspects of how Washington views Huckleberry Finn?

  • Rationale: This background search will help students grasp what cultural context is and will give them a scholarly foundation for the inferences they will make in the next activity.
  • Planning: This is the most time-consuming aspect of the unit. You may consider having students work in pairs or groups. Depending on students' access to computers and other research materials outside of class or school, you may need to schedule ample class time with access to computers for students to complete this task. Students may also need quick training in determining which information is relevant to their project.
Activity 4. How do social and historical context influence each reviewer?

Students will reread the two published critical essays they compared earlier, and they will make inferences that answer the central question of the unit: How do the historical and social realities students found in their cultural context research seem to influence critics' views of Huckleberry Finn?

  • Rationale: This will form the core of the students' cultural criticism; through the inferences they make here and the evidence they provide for those inferences, students will identify the relationship between a wider culture and an individual's ideas.
  • Planning: Depending on how adept students are at making inferences, some training in that process may be necessary. Consider ways to help students brainstorm lots of possible cause-effect relationships, and then focus their assertions on ones they can provide logic or evidence for. A mini-lesson that may be helpful might include showing students pictures from magazines or family photo albums, and then asking them to guess when the pictures were taken and what evidence they have for their guesses.
Activity 5. The student's cultural context

Finally, students will try to identify key elements of their own cultural contexts, compare their cultural contexts with those of the critics, and demonstrate how these influences appear in their own critiques of the novel.

  • Rationale: This will reinforce the inference-making and evidence-providing activities involved in cultural criticism of the most difficult subject to analyze: ourselves.

 

Assessment

You might consider before the unit begins how you want students to provide assessable evidence that they have successfully completed steps four and five. If the unit culminates in an essay, consider developing and distributing a rubric for it as students are finishing their cultural context research or refer to the one provided here. You may also consider whether you want students to perform separate assessments of their inferences about published critics' cultural contexts and their own, or whether these two sets of inferences should be combined in one assessment.

Extending The Lesson

Students may go on to use these skills to re-examine Mark Twain as a writer who is also a reader of history and culture—someone who, just as students have just done, examines how historical and social realities affect individuals. They can do this by examining materials that show the difference between the America of Twain's childhood, which heavily influenced the characters and plot of the novel, and the America of the 1880s, which heavily influenced in complex ways Twain's attitude toward the world of his childhood and the tone of his book. A good starting place for analyzing the changes in Twain's understanding of the world, particularly the roles of African-Americans in it, is Shelly Fisher Fishkin's essay "Teaching Mark Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn," part of the PBS website on Huckleberry Finn and linked to the Internet Public Library. While the essay is directed to teachers, it is accessible to sophisticated students who have juggled well this unit's overlapping lenses of their own views, critics' views, and the views seen through Huck's narrating perspective. Fishkin refers readers to some of Twain's later writings, which clarify the differences between the older Samuel Clemens' views and the young, fictional Huck Finn's views on race. This sophisticated exploration might help students navigate historical fiction by detecting the ideas of one era as they show up in a story about an earlier time period.

 

Selected EDSITEment Websites

The Basics

Grade Level

9-12

Time Required

10-15 class periods

Subject Areas
  • History and Social Studies > People > African American
  • Literature and Language Arts > Place > American
  • History and Social Studies > Themes > Common Core
  • History and Social Studies > Themes > Civil Rights
  • Literature and Language Arts > Genre > Novels
Skills
  • Compare and contrast
  • Critical analysis
  • Critical thinking
  • Discussion
  • Essay writing
  • Gathering, classifying and interpreting written, oral and visual information
  • Historical analysis
  • Interpretation
  • Literary analysis
  • Making inferences and drawing conclusions
  • Online research
  • Representing ideas and information orally, graphically and in writing
Authors
  • Mary Elizabeth Blaufuss (AL)