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Huckleberry Finn Pre-reading Activities

    Huckleberry Finn Pre-reading activities art

    Huckleberry Finn‘s importance in American literature is undeniable.  The challenges of teaching the novel are equally undeniable.   If you are confident that you and your class can navigate the sensitive issues, here are some Huckleberry Finn pre-reading activities.

    Huckleberry Finn pre-reading activities summary

    • Historical Context: The Jim Crow Era
    • Satire This
    • Meet the Author: Mark Twain
    • The Controversy over Huck Finn
    • Interpreting Artwork (visual preview)
    • Anticipation Guide
    • The Power of Words
    • Romanticism vs. Realism
    • Dialects
    • Historical Context: American Slavery
    • Enslaved Person Narrative

    Historical Context: The Jim Crow Era


    Help students consider where Twain is coming from as he writes Huckleberry Finn in the early 1880’s.  Slavery has been abolished, but the persecution continues in what historians call the Jim Crow Era (between the end of slavery and the Civil Rights Movement.)

    Have students view curated artifacts from The New Jim Crow Museum.  Following the video, have students reflect on the social impacts of these motifs and stereotypes.  How did the ideas impact white society? In what ways did the the ideas harm African Americans?

    Satire This

    Explain that a major element of Twain’s novel is satire.

    Satire: the use of humor, irony, exaggeration, or ridicule to expose and criticize people’s stupidity or vices, particularly in the context of contemporary politics and other topical issues.

    He satires human nature, his society, and many specific aspects along the way.

    Approach 1: Engage students in analyzing popular forms of satire.

    Assign each cooperative group a satirical clip, comic strip, song, poem, or short story.  Students analyze their example in in terms of target, audience, purpose, and treatment.  Lastly, students present their thoughts to the class.

    health care satire cartoon

    Related link: “The Owl Critic” poem by James Thomas Fields

    Related link: “View from the Prism of ‘Ism'” poem by Gershon Wolf

    Approach 2: Encourage students to embrace their cynicism and create original satire skits.

    Have cooperative groups demonstrate satire by writing one in the form of a one-scene skit

    Start by having students brainstorm appropriate targets for satire (people, places, things, events, or ideas) that are worthy of mockery.

    Then have the students clearly identify the target, audience, purpose, and treatment and compose a simple script. 

    Finally, have the groups perform for the class.

    Meet the Author: Mark Twain

    Pros and cons teaching Huckleberry Finn and the flawed ending

    “In the first place God made idiots. This was for practice. Then he made School Boards.”

    Have students reach conclusions about Mark Twain’s point of view by reading two of his brief works. What kind of person is this Mark Twain?

    “Advice to Youth”

    In this short essay Twain offers some dubious advice to young people.  His thesis is that most advice from adults is terrible.

    “Now as to the matter of lying. You want to be very careful about lying; otherwise you are nearly sure to get caught. Once caught, you can never again be in the eyes to the good and the pure, what you were before. Many a young person has injured himself permanently through a single clumsy and ill finished lie, the result of carelessness born of incomplete training. Some authorities hold that the young out not to lie at all. That of course, is putting it rather stronger than necessary; still while I cannot go quite so far as that, I do maintain , and I believe I am right, that the young ought to be temperate in the use of this great art until practice and experience shall give them that confidence, elegance, and precision which alone can make the accomplishment graceful and profitable.”

    “Go to bed early, get up early — this is wise. Some authorities say get up with the sun; some say get up with one thing, others with another. But a lark is really the best thing to get up with. It gives you a splendid reputation with everybody to know that you get up with the lark; and if you get the right kind of lark, and work at him right, you can easily train him to get up at half past nine, every time — it’s no trick at all.”

    Related link: “Advice to Youth” by Mark Twain

    “A Presidential Candidate”

    In his essay “A Presidential Candidate”, Twain presents himself as a candidate upon which the people can rely (because he is consistently terrible.)  He satires elections and moral rationalizations.

    “The rumor that I buried a dead aunt under my grapevine was correct. The vine needed fertilizing, my aunt had to be buried, and I dedicated her to this high purpose. Does that unfit me for the Presidency? The Constitution of our country does not say so. No other citizen was ever considered unworthy of this office because he enriched his grapevines with his dead relatives. Why should I be selected as the first victim of an absurd prejudice?”

    Related link: “A Presidential Candidate”

    The Controversy over Huck Finn:

    Since you have decided to include Huck Finn in your curriculum, you must have compelling reasons, but that does not mean you should avoid the controversy.  The controversy itself is a great opportunity for engaging critical thinking.

    Have the students compare arguments from both sides of the controversy over studying Huckleberry Finn in the classroom.

    Interpreting Artwork (visual preview)

    Huckleberry Finn Pre-reading activities art
    Huck Finn, mural by Thomas Hart Benton

    This Huckleberry Finn pre-reading activity introduces the novel’s literary elements by asking students to analyze fine art.  This will set the students in a frame of mind to read the novel.

    Assign each student group one example of art inspired by The Adventures of Huckleberry and Finn.  Each group is to present analysis on their respective works in regards to…

    • Subject (what is being portrayed)
    • Emphasis (What aspects are the main foci and how you know?)
    • Tone (the artist’s attitudes toward the subjects) 
    • Feeling or theme (what the artist wants to communicate)
    • Style (the techniques the artist uses to communicate)

    Anticipation Guide

    A simple anticipation guide gets students oriented to the theme subjects in the novel.  There are many helpful examples out there:

    The Power of Words

    Since students will be dealing with the omnipresence of the n-word and harmful stereotypes, engage in a Huckleberry Finn pre-reading activity that prepares students for responsible discourse.

    I like to have students read “Straight Talk about the N-word” by Sean Price.  Here are some discussion questions from Teaching Tolerance to pair with the text.

    1) What is your immediate reaction when you read or hear the n-word? Where do you think that reaction comes from?

    2) Think about and share the places or circumstances when you have seen or heard the n-word. You might consider works of literature, music, graffiti, films, comedy shows, casual conversation among African-American students or casual conversation among white students.

    3) In each of these situations, did you ever think that use of the n-word was appropriate? Why or why not?

    Related link: “The N-word: It Just Slips Out” by Allen Francis

    Related link: “Teaching Huck Finn without Regret” from Teaching Tolerance

    Related link: “Exploring the Controversy” from PBS Cultureshock

    Huckleberry Finn unit cover

    Romanticism vs. Realism

    Explain that Twain was on the forefront of American Realism.  Realism was largely a rejection of Romanticism, so what are the differences?

    Give each student group the same topic and ask them to write the story in a form that conforms to either Romanticism or Realism:

    Story overview: A young woman is frustrated with her station in life.  She seeks employment that will help her move up in the world.  She finds a dream-job, but it does not work out as she imagined.  In fact, it turns out to be a nightmare.

    Related clip:  “An Introduction to Realism”

    Related link: “The Rise of Realism” PowerPoint

    Get students experimenting with dialect in narrative.

    Twain’s extensive use of dialects (even in the narration) was revolutionary and controversial; it did nothing to endear him to Language Arts teachers of the period.  Of course, something that is dialect now may become standard English in the future.

    Get students experimenting with dialect in original narratives.  Challenge them to write a brief narrative event in a dialect that they know well (perhaps one that they use themselves).  Then ask them to write a second version that translates both the narration and the dialogue into standard English.

    For example: “‘This track dumb-tuff, yo. The beat is off the hook.”

    Translation: “This song is extremely engaging, truly.  The rhythm is excellent.”

    Having the students share their versions is entertaining, but remind them that the use of dialect does more than entertain.  It helps to create the reality for the readers.

    Related link: “Everyone has an Accent” from Teaching Tolerance

    Related link: “How to write accents and dialects: 6 tips”

    Related link: will even convert your text into the dialect of Yoda, a stereotypical pirate, the San Fernando Valley, etc.

    Historical Context: American Slavery

    This Huckleberry Finn pre-reading activity requires research access.  In order for students to contextualize the novel, have them jigsaw research topics on American slavery and its aftermath.

    Assign each of the student or groups one contextual topic to present.  Be clear about how you want students to form research questions, take notes, and cite sources.

    Suggested research topics:

    • Slave codes
    • The plantation system in America (function)
    • The plantation system in America (timeline)
    • The origins of the term Jim Crow
    • Jim Crow laws
    • Nat Turner’s Rebellion
    • The abolition movement
    • Causes of the Civil War
    • Mark Twain and African Americans
    • The Underground Railroad
    • The Stono Rebellion
    • The first enslaved Africans in America
    • “Forty acres and a Mule”
    • Sharecropping
    • Bleeding Kansas
    • Sojourner Truth
    • The Fugitive Slave Act
    • Dred Scott v. Sanford
    • African Americans in the Civil War
    • African Americans in the Revolutionary War
    • Ona Judge
    • Mississippi River basin (geography and peoples)
    • Henry “Box” Brown
    • Harriet Tubman
    • Frederick Douglas
    • John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry

    Narratives by Enslaved People

    enslaved person narrative douglass
    Frederick Douglass

    This may be the most important of the Huckleberry Finn pre-reading activities. Before hearing Huck’s account of Jim’s quest for freedom, have students consider first hand accounts from enslaved people. There are many fascinating examples to study, but here is Frederick Douglas’ account of his escape to freedom.

    Excerpt from “My Escape from Slavery” by Frederick Douglas

    “I was not so fortunate as to resemble any of my free acquaintances sufficiently to answer the description of their papers. But I had one friend – a sailor – who owned a sailor’s protection, which answered somewhat the purpose of free papers – describing his person and certifying to the fact that he was a free American sailor. The instrument had at its head the American eagle, which gave it the appearance at once of an authorized document. This protection, when in my hands did not describe its bearer very accurately. Indeed, it called for a man much darker than myself, and close examination of it would have caused my arrest at the start.

    In order to avoid this fatal scrutiny on the part of railroad officials, I arranged with Isaac Rolls, a Baltimore hackman, to bring my baggage to the Philadelphia train just on the moment of starting, and jumped upon the car myself when the train was in motion. Had I gone into the station and offered to purchase a ticket, I should have been instantly and carefully examined, and undoubtedly arrested. In choosing this plan I considered the jostle of the train, and the natural haste of the conductor, in a train crowded with passengers and relied upon my skill and address in playing the sailor, as described in my protection to do the rest. One element in my favor was the kind feeling which prevailed in Baltimore and other sea-ports at the time, toward ‘those who go down to the sea in ships.’ ‘Free trade and sailors’ rights’ just then expressed the sentiment of the country. In my clothes I was rigged out in sailor style. I had on a red shirt and a tarpaulin hat, and a black cravat tied in sailor fashion carelessly and loosely about my neck. My knowledge of ships and sailor’s talk came much to my assistance, for I knew a ship from stem to stem, and from keelson to cross-trees, and could talk sailor like an ‘old salt.’

    I was well on the way to Havre de Grace before the conductor came into the negro car to collect tickets and examine the papers of his black passengers. This was a critical moment in the drama. My whole future depended upon the decision of this conductor. Agitated though I was while this ceremony was proceeding, still, externally, at least, I was apparently calm and self-possessed. He went on with his duty – examining several colored passengers before reaching me. He was somewhat harsh in tone and peremptory in manner until he reached me, when, strange enough, and to my surprise and relief, his whole manner changed. Seeing that I did not readily produce my free papers, as the other colored persons in the car had done, he said to me, in friendly contrast with his bearing toward the others:

    ‘I suppose you have your free papers?’ To which I answered:

    ‘No, sir; I never carry my free papers to sea with me.’

    ‘But you have something to show that you are a freeman, haven’t you?’

    ‘Yes sir,’ I answered: ‘I have a paper with the American eagle on it, and that will carry me around the world.’ With this I drew from my deep sailor’s pocket my seaman’s protection, as before described. The merest glance at the paper satisfied him, and he took my fare and went on about his business. This moment of time was one of the most anxious I ever experienced. Had the conductor looked closely at the paper, he could not have failed to discover that it called for a very different looking person from myself, and in that case it would have been his duty to arrest me on the instant and send me back to Baltimore from the first station. When he left me with the assurance that I was all right, though much relieved, I realized that I was still in great danger: I was still in Maryland, and subject to arrest at any moment. I saw on the train several persons who would have known me in any other clothes, and I feared they might recognize me, even in my sailor ‘rig,’ and report me to the conductor, who would then subject me to a closer examination, which I knew well would be fatal to me.

    Though I was not a murderer fleeing from justice, I felt perhaps quite as miserable as such a criminal. The train was moving at a very high rate of speed for that epoch of railroad travel, but to my anxious mind it was moving far too slowly. Minutes were hours, and hours were days during this part of my flight. After Maryland, I was to pass through Delaware – another slave State, where slave-catchers generally awaited their prey, for it was not in the interior of the State, but on its borders, that these human hounds were most vigilant and active. The borderlines between slavery and freedom were the dangerous ones for the fugitives. The heart of no fox or deer, with hungry hounds on his trail in full chase, could have beaten more anxiously or noisily than did mine from the time I left Baltimore till I reached Philadelphia.”

    It may be illuminating later in the unit to compare one or more of these accounts to Huck’s view of Jim’s freedom-seeking.  It is clear throughout the novel that Huck has a poor understanding of Jim’s quest and the risks involved

    Huckleberry Finn unit cover

    Related post: Pros and Cons of Teaching Huckleberry Finn

    Related post: “30 Tips for Teaching Huckleberry Finn

    Huckleberry Finn pre-reading activities summary

    • Historical Context: The Jim Crow Era
    • Satire This
    • Meet the Author: Mark Twain
    • The Controversy over Huck Finn
    • Interpreting Artwork (visual preview)
    • Anticipation Guide
    • The Power of Words
    • Romanticism vs. Realism
    • Dialects
    • Historical Context: American Slavery
    • Enslaved Person Narrative

    I hope that you have found at least one Huckleberry Finn pre-reading activity that you can use.  If you have, consider using my complete Huckleberry Finn unit and teacher guide.