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The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

Mark Twain

Theme: Society's Laws vs. Higher Moral Values
Grades: Grades 10-11

While traveling down the Mississippi with a runaway slave, an adolescent boy learns to decide for himself what really matters. Set in the early 19th century, Twain's novel deals with a boy's loss of innocence and a slave's struggle for freedom. In The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, he embraced the American values of rugged individualism and freedom of speech; and by writing in the American vernacular, he helped to create a distinctively American literary tradition.

  1. Role Playing.
    Have students discuss or role-play one of the situations that follow:

    • A friend tells you in strictest confidence that he is going to run away from what you both consider an intolerable situation. You know that runaways are often preyed upon by criminals and other unscrupulous people. What do you do?
    • Imagine that a law is passed requiring any adult without a high school diploma to work as a servant for those who are more educated. How will you respond to this law?
  1. Linking to Today: Political Refugees.
    Discuss with students the contemporary situations in which governments mistreat people. Bring up real-life instances in which people break the law for what they believe is a higher good. For instance, in the 1980s, human-rights groups helped political refugees from El Salvador escape their oppressive situation by traveling illegally through the U.S. to Canada. What do students think they would do, given a chance to help? What are their reasons?
  1. Where the Slaves Were.
    It may be difficult for students to get a feeling for how common slavery was during the first half of the 19th century. Have students research how many slaves were in the slave-holding states, compare that number to the number of free people in each state, and display the information in a chart.

  1. Abolitionists.
    The abolitionists, mentioned with such horror by Huck, were a group of antislavery activists who wanted the slaves freed. Many gave fiery speeches in aid of their cause. Students can write speeches to persuade people to free the slaves, and then perform them.
  1. The Movement.
    Have students research the antislavery movement. What sorts of pressures were on the abolitionists? Instruct them to write a description of a day in the life of an abolitionist.

  2. A Book of Slavery.
    Slavery has such emotional connotations that one good way to think about it is to collect and create impressions that can help people understand the subject. Invite your students to create a book about slavery—a compendium of thoughts, artistic impressions, and reminiscences about one of the most painful experiences in our nation's collective memory. Another option is to make the book primarily visual, recording students' drawings, etc., in response to the topic.

    Suggested Procedure:

  • Slavery has had such an impact on American life that it appears often in art. First have students research the history of the practice in this country. Then have them look for different ways that artists and writers express their views on slavery. They can look at African-American poetry, slave narratives, and slave songs, comments from those who were there (both slaves and slave holders), histories from abolitionists and the lives of people such as the freed slave Sojourner Truth, paintings and other art commenting on the subject (students can look in anthologies of African-American art).
  • Once students have done their research, have them discuss what they found. They can decide how to present the information they gathered. They could include some excerpts from accounts of the day, art and poetry they have collected, and then create their own responses through writing and art. Encourage them to think about the book's organization-do they want a random series of impressions, or to organize the work so it follows a particular order? The book could be chronological, or organized by subject or media.
  • Have them assemble their book and introduce it in a presentation.