Tag Archives: Huck Finn

Why Am I Exhausted? Oh Wait, I’m Teaching Huck Finn…

When I decided to teach Adventures of Huckleberry Finn to my sophomores, I decided to for several reasons, many of them about the importance of the text as “American” (whatever that means), and also because the character Jim presents all sorts of conundrums. I also wanted them to come to their own conclusions about whether the text should be taught in classrooms (the culminating debate for the text). That Huck can’t quite resolve the conflict between his conscience and his heart is just as compelling, and, while at the center of the novel, there are numerous other angles that also provide interesting moments of analysis.

I also remembered when I taught the text a couple of years ago that I was absolutely worn out once we got done with the book. With the last 12 chapters to go, I’m feeling that same way, and have been thinking about why.

The additional layer that often gets overlooked in these discussions about appropriateness, N-words and the rest is how much background knowledge you have to build for kids AND how much correcting of historical inaccuracies you also have to resolve. Students are as naive as Huck when it comes to thinking about Jim, and–this is where I understand why I have to teach this text and be on my game every single time I work with the kids–they will remain that way unless you help them think of him otherwise.

They want to call Jim illiterate. They want to say that he’s not “smart”. They want to think him illogical. They also have questions about enslaved Africans: would Jim have known his family in Africa? They ask with a genuine interest.

They also think they know everything about slavery because they saw Django Unchained.

I want to pass out, but I can’t.

I have been building text sets out of necessity (ah, the mother of invention) to give them a broader understanding of the lives of enslaved Africans. I’ve shown clips from Skip Gates’ newest documentary, The African Americans: Many Rivers to Cross which talks about slavery and fugitive slave laws (and if you don’t cry when you watch the story of Margaret Garner, well, then…), pulled from slave narratives, Frederick Douglass, historical documents, etc.

I am cobbling together supplemental texts as quickly as I can, which is fine. It’s just…frustrating and disheartening and, yes, exhausting. Teaching HF is fraught with my own internal conflicts: is it worth reading a text that potentially takes so much out of me emotionally, through analyzing Huck’s conflict amidst the historical setting and contradictions? Is it worth having to correct so many plain-wrong misunderstandings about enslaved Africans, about romanticized notions of slavery, of fighting to help them see Jim as a person (before that all goes to hell when they reach Phelps’ farm)?

I would say yes, though I’m uneasy.

I think, too, that I’ve come to the point that I think this text should be taught as interdisciplinary, with a History teacher who can set to rights the wrongs that kids have internalized. And I’m not putting this work off on a History teacher; rather, I simply think that the more kids have the opportunity to learn counternarratives, and apply them to texts to broaden or correct their (mis)understandings, the better critical thinkers, writers and people they can become.

Because the struggle is so real right now, and I have never been happier to know that tomorrow is the weekend and I can shore up my own courage before returning down the Mississippi River with them on Monday.

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And So It Begins: This HAS to Work

Summer officially ends on Monday, when I return to school for a grade-level PD meeting, followed by a few more days of all-school PD. The kids turn up after Labor Day.

I’ve been thinking about this new group of kids quite a bit as I prepare to launch a new initiative, now called Honors Prep. 21 students (with the potential of reaching 23 by the time we are rolling along) have made the commitment to take my class this fall with the goal that it will prepare them to enter–AND STAY–in Honors English classes for the rest of the time in high school. Thus, by the time they finish a semester of the prep class, they enter my Honors English class, prepared to be awesome.

My contention is that they simply need a bit more time: to learn the skills required to write well, to spend some more time sharpening their critical thinking, to improve their reading skills. They also need a bit more time developing their grit: what to do when things get difficult. Rather than quitting, they need to learn strategies for surviving and thriving. Traditionally, underserved kids (insert all of understanding of kids who aren’t in Honors classes: kids of color, kids who are from low SES, some boys, etc.) show up for their Honors class, get the first assignment or two and then drop the class. Nearly all of them do not take an Honors English class again in their high school experience.

Not acceptable.

They need to learn that they have the power to be intellectuals if they 1) believe they can and 2) learn the requisite skills.

So while I’m developing a new class, the only big differences will be in the content and in the amount of scaffolding they receive. I’ll still be my warm-demander self, but I anticipate loving them up a bit more as they get used to being pushed. It’s going to be uncomfortable for them at first, true, but I believe in them more than they will believe in themselves at first. It’s fine. I’ve been in this position before.

It’s a parallel skills class: they’ll learn to cite evidence, close read, write arguments, conduct rhetorical analysis, ask their own questions (it’s an inquiry-based class anyway), lead discussions, the same things the Honors classes do, but they’ll have a semester to “practice” and “master” those skills before being thrown into the deep end. Now, I’m not necessarily reducing the amount of text complexity, but I am starting a bit slower.

My Honors classes tend to study: The Odyssey, Things Fall Apart, Macbeth, Huck Finn and Frankenstein, with some particular attention to smaller units that deal with women, postcolonial lit theory, rhetorical analysis, etc. They also write a good amount as they tackle the argument (it’s own challenge because we struggle with disabusing them of writing with formulas…it’s fun and eventually we find peace, but it takes us nearly all semester).

The Prepsters (as I call them unofficially; I’m thinking we should get some t-shirts!) will be practicing the same skills that the Honors kids are working on, but will use different texts. Their texts include Purple Hibiscus, Merchant of Venice, Malcolm X and smaller units on the short story, tracking a columnist for rhetorical analysis and, yes, lots of writing.

Both groups will get some early work on growth mindset. All students will be part of a smaller writing/review group. Honors Prep kids will have the support of some graduate students who will be responsible for monitoring the progress of the writing groups.

I’m moving to the writing groups (and I think that they’ll have a broader function of supporting the students within them as they collaborate) because I’ve been thinking about a comment a parent made to me last year. He wondered why American students tended to be so isolated when they studied. He, as Argentinian, was much more accustomed to working with a group, of being part of a regular community that shared ideas, helped each other out, became stronger because of a shared experience.

He’s right: I do a LOT of community building in the early months of school, then move into community maintenance for the remainder of our time because my students tend to be ridiculously competitive. I have to teach them–intentionally–how to work together, how to collaborate (which, by the way is one of the skills lacking in young people, the ability to collaborate and one which employers wished students were more adept at doing). Thus, if I set my mind to doing it from the beginning, then it will be something I can give due diligence rather than treat it as an add-on.

I’m grateful that so many people are behind this idea for the prep class. I’ve just decided that it has to work because these kids–the ones who rarely make it in an Honors class because of lack of preparation, the kids, I would argue, that we NEED in Honors classes–deserve it. They deserve to be in an environment where they know they have a shot to make it, and they need to know that they are prepared to answer the difficult questions, take the tough risks, write the hard papers because they’ve been prepared.

And because I am an eternal optimist, my hope is that next year, I teach a few more of these classes, get a few more kids ready to move up into the Honors track, and those kids become part of a support network of the kids that came before, and they look back and pull others up. Then, in five years, I hope to not be teaching these classes at all because–while I don’t believe in panaceas–at least this class will have become enough of a model that other folks realize that if we simply buckle down and do the hard work of believing first that ALL kids deserve this preparation and that it should be happening up and down the grade levels, others take up the challenge and…I can’t quite even finish that thought because if that were to happen, we might have a revolution.

I’m down for that.

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