(A version of this piece first ran as a guest blog on Ethical ELA on May 28th, 2016.)
Huck Finn was going the way of Hester Prynne in my American Heritage classroom. Which is to say, he was getting chipped and chopped into smaller and smaller segments that I could spoon-feed to my students. Gone were the first eight, then ten, chapters: movie and summary. Gone were the final ten: summary or ignored altogether. Long before the truncation of Huck Finn, The Scarlet Letter was peeled down to scaffold scenes only (as it should be, if you ask me).
It’s not necessary for high school students to read all of Huck Finn. Yeah, I’ll say that.
But I think it’s a good idea to read some of it, and I think we–my colleagues and I who worked collaboratively to plan the unit–had been focusing on the wrong some.
To study the middle of the book is largely to study the concept of satire. That is, it’s largely to study what we want students to understand about satire–to focus solely on what the author wants.
Instead, we should be focusing on what students get. It’s great if they get satire. But I can feed that to them in short, efficient order. It’s largely plot.
Satire is important, sure, but it’s mostly what’s found in the text, and the text, though produced by a master, is limited.
* * *
Students need broader materials. They need experience. What can they bring of their own experience to their study of Huck Finn?
- Huckishness (Don’t they all have it in them? Playfulness. Misunderstanding others. Rebelliousness. Disgust toward society.)
- Experience with adults
- Worry about parents and family
- Difficulty with school
- Social survival skills
- Desire for home and adventure
Some of those kinds of materials are found in the middle of the book, but a whole lot of Huck’s Huckishness is located in the beginning and end.
* * *
Planning for the Worthy Objective
I sat down with a couple of my instructional coaches. (Lucky for me, they have both taught the class before.) I thought we would hash out a few activities and a prompt for an essay at the end and call it good.
Instead, they started questioning me. The questions were tough. They asked big ones, philosophical ones, and soon I was talking about that kid I liked so much, the one who struggled to do his own thing, to do what he sensed was right when surrounded by corrupt adults and a bad peer influence. Huck shows us how much it matters to surround ourselves with the right people. He shows us that sometimes we don’t have a choice about it–as with his Pap–while sometimes we do. He’s a kid trying to make good decisions, trying to survive day to day, struggling the most when involved in follies caused by “civilized” society. Students can relate to that. That’s what can matter to them.
The satirical points might matter to them, but the Huckishness will matter to them.
For our second planning session, the coaches provided many resources pertaining to Huck’s character. Readings on poverty and abuse. Video clips on dynamic characters. Quotes about individualism. They brought contemporary tools to help us access Huck’s Huckishness.
I didn’t have unit activities yet; I had something better: a worthy objective and a sense of how to get there.
We paced out the chapters, building time for the close reading of some. We focused on Huck’s character throughout–if students have a portal into the book, it’s through his nature.
Who is Huck today? That’s one of our questions. Do students recognize him? That’s another. Both questions matter, and I would claim they matter more than the satire of the story no matter how universal or amusing the points.
The catch to this anecdote: I don’t know if the new approach works. Not yet. I have a sense it will, but it needs more work.
* * *
Most of the data I collected after exploring the book in the manner I outline here came in the final assessment, a short piece of writing in response to a prompt asking what characteristics of Huck would help him navigate in today’s world. To help students prepare their responses, I set up a station activity that allowed them to choose which areas of their thinking could use help. When I observed students not choosing any particular station, instead wandering aimlessly with friends, not engaging with the activity, I knew our prior work with the novel hadn’t adequately prepared them. Their writing ended up timid, tepid.
Before I teach the novel again, I will work with our instructional coaches to revise my unit plans. I think the unit activities can be even more focused, and I think students can do more writing, more evidence-gathering from the get-go. And now that I have a better sense of the reconstructed unit flow, I will provide students with an important resource at the beginning of our reading: the writing prompt. Seems obvious; sometimes past-me embarrasses present-me.
Perhaps more important than the final assessment, I could tell from our work throughout the unit that students didn’t connect personally as much as I would have liked. This makes me wonder if I forced my idea of Huckishness on them when I should have spent more time allowing students to define it for themselves.
* * *
A Mindset of Reflection
This a teaching story. But it’s also a leadership story. I learned from the strategy of my instructional coaches–teacher leaders–about the power of a reflective approach in our profession. Not post-event reflection, but a mindset of reflection. I learned about the power of big questions. The power of why. The power of collaboration and conversation. The power of a student-centered approach. I wanted a unit. I got a philosophy.
Satire requires teachers to do a lot of talking and thinking. Huckishness requires students to do so. Whoever is doing the talking and thinking in the classroom has the power. It would be all too ironic for a schoolteacher to control all the power in the study of Huck Finn–and Huck Finn.
Cameron is a high school English/Language Arts teacher in West Des Moines, Iowa. When he is not climbing he can be found deep in his graduate school studies.