Skip to content

Huckleberry Finn Unit Plan for High School

    Huckleberry Finn Unit Plan FEATURED

    One of the hardest aspects of teaching long-form literature is organizing your unit.  The organic, creative form of novels does not lend itself to compartmentalization.  I hope that you will find my Huckleberry Finn unit plan for high school helpful.

    Huckleberry Finn unit overview: 

    • Pre-reading: “Huck Finn is a Racist”
    • Reading 1: “Breaking Away” (chapters 1-8)
    • Reading 2: “Is Huck Trash?” (chapters 9-16 )
    • Reading 3: “Frauds and Fools” (chapters 17-22)
    • Reading 4: “Stories within Stories” (chapters 23-28)
    • Reading 5: “Huck’s Conflicts” (chapters 29-35)
    • Reading 6: “Twain’s Themes” (chapters 36-43)
    • Culminating Tasks

    Pre-reading: “Huck Finn is a Racist”

    The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and portrayals of Jim

    Before teaching the pre-reading lesson, it is critical that your Huckleberry Finn unit plan for high school set’s the students up for success.  This includes communicating the unit goals, setting the reading schedule, planning for additional support, introducing the final task(s), and advising students on sensitive content.

    My main pre-reading lesson helps students consider Huck’s world view, especially his racism.  We cannot understand Huck’s racism unless we establish the historical context of the setting (slavery in America) and the publication (Jim Crow era).  This should be accomplished before meeting the narrator.

    Once students have built this knowledge, they should think critically about whether or not a novel with a racist narrator is appropriate for study in a high school classroom.  This controversy is an important opportunity for dialogue.

    Helpful materials:

    Related post: 11 Pre-reading Activities for Huckleberry Finn

    Reading 1: “Breaking Away” (chapters 1-8)

    The structure of Huckleberry Finn

    Jim and Huck demonstrate critical differences and profound similarities.  By the end of this reading, both Jim and Huck are breaking away from their community. Of course, their reasons are very different.

    My main lesson asks students to analyze Huck’s reasons for breaking with society.  Who is to blame for this failed relationship? Huck may view himself as a loathsome misfit, but Twain’s portrayal shows that it is society that has failed to protect and nurture.

    At this early point in the unit, it is also appropriate to consider how Twain is breaking away.  His use of dialect and other features indicate his stylistic break with romanticism in favor of realism.  His use of satire and irony (e.g. the portrayal of Pap Finn) show his break with society’s erroneous assumptions and hypocritical behaviors.

    Related link: “The Great Escape: Huck Finn’s Escape from Social Constraint”

    Related link: “Fenimore Cooper’s Literary Offenses” by Mark Twain

    Reading 2: “Is Huck Trash?” (chapters 9-16 )

    Huck Finn's relationship with 'sivilization'

    By the end of chapter 16, Huck is struggling with his decision to help Jim reach freedom.  Despite his break with “sivilization,” he is unable to discard the imposed morality surrounding race.  He views his supposed failures as a product of his own inferiority.  The influences in his life have led him to view himself as “ornery and low-down.”

    My main lesson asks students to reach conclusions on the quality of Huck’s character.  He thinks very little of himself, yet Twain displays Huck’s courage, intelligence, and loyalty.

    This section of the novel is also where students start to consider Jim and Huck’s relationship.  Students evaluate the complexities of their friendship caused by their respective powers and roles.  The river frees them of these complexities and students should analyze the symbolic importance of the natural environment.

    Related link: “The Father-Son Relationship of Jim and Huck in Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn”

    Related link: “Examining the River in terms of Symbolism in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

    Reading 3: “Frauds and Fools” (chapters 17-22)

    Huckleberry Finn unit plan for high school frauds

    In this section of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Twain’s disdain for human nature is on full display.  Twain uses the sub-plots and characters to lambaste society and popular conceptions of grief, fair play, status, romance, and honor.

    In the main lesson of this section, I ask the students to analyze one satirical element of the novel so far:

    Satirical elements (chapters 17-22)

    • Tom Sawyer
    • Huck Finn
    • The Grangerfords
    • Townsfolk in Parkville
    • Arkansans
    • Boggs
    • The murderers on the steamship
    • The lynch mob
    • The duke and the king
    • Jim
    • Col. Sherburn
    • Pap Finn
    • Emmeline Grangerford
    • Tom Sawyer’s gang

    On an unrelated topic, this is also a good time to to examine word choice.  Huck’s reflections on the river and nature are quite poetic and serve important roles in characterization and mood.

    Reading 4: “Stories within Stories” (chapters 23-28)

    Huckleberry Finn stories within storiesAt this point in the Huckleberry Finn unit plan for high school, it is helpful so step back from the details of the narrative and think about the method behind Twain’s structure.  He has formed Huck Finn as an episodic epic, Huck is the American Odysseus.

    I have my students think about the value and cumulative effect of this structure.  How do the parts fit together and what is the end result? They diagram the sub-plots, parallel plots, and main plots in order to reach their conclusion.  They should conclude that the interwoven themes and elements strengthen each other.

    Of course many of the stories within the story are satirical episodes that build Twain’s general indictment. Since the students have already analyzed satire, I like to extend this learning by writing a satire of their own.

    Related link: Huck Finn and the Odyssey

    Reading 5: “Huck’s Conflicts” (chapters 29-35)

    Huck is committed to freeing Jim.  He views this as a personal failing but does not believe he can overcome his supposedly base nature.

    Students should examine Huck’s internal and external conflicts.  In doing so they illustrate the complexities surrounding his internal conflict over aiding Jim. It is telling that the external conflicts do not directly face Huck.  (He is already free of his father and Widow Douglas as he desired.)  The external conflicts are only a result of his unwillingness to reject his faithful heart in favor of society’s moral code.

    This is a good point to return to Twain’s rejection of romanticism.  The conflicted state of the narrator illustrates this, but Tom’s views about what is proper and desirable are key.  I explore the concepts of romanticism with the class and challenge students to write their own example of romantic literature.

    “A sound heart is a surer guide than an ill-trained conscience.” -Mark Twain

    Related link: “Huck Finn’s Inner Conflicts Reflect Our Own” by Scott Simon

    Reading 6: “Twain’s Themes” (chapters 36-43)

    pros and cons of teach huckleberry finn mark twain

    The satires, sub-plots, irony, symbols, etc. all result in the development of Twain’s themes.  Students need to demonstrate understanding by analyzing how connected elements converge thematically.

    I have students choose one important element of the novel and present on its role in developing theme:

    Primary choices Additional choices
      • Superstition
      • Clothing
      • Nature (especially Huck’s poetry)
      • The river
      • Propriety (rules of being proper)
      • The raft
      • Introspection
      • Nobility / breeding
      • Frauds / lying
      • Prayer / religion
      • The island
      • Pranks
      • Romanticism (especially Tom’s ideas)
      • People as property
      • Violence
      • Performance
      • Social pressure

    Related link: “‘I Never Knowed How Clothes Could Change a Body Before’: The Dual Function of Clothing in Huckleberry Finn

    Jim’s Performance

    Regarding the theme of performance, students should compare Huck’s narration and our interpretations of Jim.  As a result of his racist views, Huck often views Jim as a foolish pawn and fails to recognize Jim’s agency, guile, and tact.  A critical reader, however, can see past Huck’s narration to recognize that Jim is compelled to play a role.

    Evidence that Jim is more intelligent than Huck realizes:

      • He keeps Pap’s death to himself.
      • He reaffirms their friendship when he realizes that Huck is planning to turn him in.
      • He plays along with Tom’s plans until they are dangerous.
      • He directs Huck using superstitions.
      • His arguments point out logical flaws.
      • He realizes that he can reprimand Huck but not Tom.
      • He cleverly tests the duke and the king.

    Related post: Huckleberry Finn Discussion Questions


    Huck Finn Unit COVER final

    Culminating Tasks for your Huckleberry Finn Unit Plan for High School

    My main culminating task asks students to present on a recurring motif regarding theme development, but here is a list of ideas that might align to the goals of your Huckleberry Finn unit:

    Final exam

    (My final exams typically include four sections: comprehension, Language Arts standards, short response, and extended response.  Some of the foci of this unit are symbol, satire, irony, point of view, historical context, theme development, and word choice.)

    Recurring Elements (presentation)

    Choose one recurring element from The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and analyze its use in theme development.  Make sure your presentation demonstrates mastery of Speaking and Listening standards.

    All’s Well that Ends Well? (debate)

    Organize an argument in order to participate in a debate on the ending of Huckleberry Finn.  Do you think that the ending is a literary disaster or a key feature that many fail to understand?

    Jim’s Point of View (narrative)

    Rewrite one section of Huck Finn from Jim’s point of view.  Include an afterward where you explain your creative choices and how the point of view shift impacts the telling of the story.

    Twain’s View of Social Status (essay)

    Look back to the plots and sub-plots in Huck Finn in order to determine Twain’s message on social status.  Compose a theme statement and support your conclusion with textual evidence.

    Themes on Slavery and Racism (essay)

    It is important to remember that Twain wrote Huck Finn in 1884, when slavery in the U.S. had already been abolished.  Keep this in mind as you explain how Twain develops his themes on slavery and racism.

    Huck’s Point of View (essay)

    Twain might have told the story from the point of view of Jim as a freedom-seeker.  He also might have chosen to make a staunch abolitionist.  Analyze the impact of Twain’s use of a racist narrator.

    Twain’s Brand of Satire (essay)

    Satire can take many forms.  Use examples from Huck Finn in order to make generalizations about how Twain uses mockery to make his points.  (You may want to research methods of satire as you form your response.)

    “Huck II: Return of the King” (narrative)

    You do not have to have the king return, but you do need to imitate Twain’s style.  Write a follow-up short story that reads like Twain.  Think about point-of-view, word choice (including dialect), and theme.

    Clothing and Huck Finn (essay)

    Clothing plays a key thematic role in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.  Think about how the con-men use clothing, what Huck thinks of clothing, and the role of nudity in the novel (Huck and Jim going nude on the river.)

    Comparing Literature: Feuds (essay)

    Read the short story “The Interlopers” by Saki.  Compare this text to the sub-plot surrounding the Shepherdsons and Grangerfords.  How do the texts differ in terms of theme, point of view, and tone? What are the similarities?

    Alternate Ending (research and narrative)

    Research the reasons why many people (including Hemingway) dislike the ending of Huck Finn.  You will need this information to write the forward for your alternate ending.

    Since so many people dislike the ending of Huck Finn, give them what they want.  Write a new ending that critics would find more palatable.  Start by writing a forward explaining why so many people object to the ending and how you are going to gratify them.

    Tom’s Role (essay)

    Tom plays the role of a foil in Huck Finn.  He is used to highlight Huck’s character.  Use textual evidence in order to illustrate how the author uses Tom to influence our views of Huck.

    Perspectives on Enslaved Persons (essay)

    The treatment of Jim and other enslaved people in Huck Finn is often contradictory and/or hypocritical.  The same person might treat Jim as honored guest in one instance and as a lowly object in another instance.  Explain how Twain uses this to make a point.

    The Lost Episode (narrative)

    There were episodes that Twain omitted from his final draft of Huckleberry Finn.  Try to write a lost episode that fits into the novel.  Make sure that your new sub-plot fits the novel structurally, thematically, and stylistically.

    Comparing Literature: Slavery (essay)

    Read Roots: The Saga of An American Family chapters 41-45 (Kunta tries to escape.)  Compare this portrayal of freedom-seeking to the portrayal in Huck Finn.  What are the similarities and differences? Be sure to address the elements of point of view and tone.

    Original Satire (performance)

    Demonstrate your mastery of satire by writing and performing a satirical skit.  Work with a group to write a script that mocks something to make a point.  Make sure to include an explanation of your target, purpose, and method.

    Adapt a scene for the stage or screen

    Choose one plot event or episode from the novel to adapt for the stage or screen.  Your group will adapt the narrative into script form and keep a record of creative choices.  You are free to make changes as long as you explain what aspects you are trying to emphasize with your changes.

    Should schools chuck Huck? (argument)

    Now that you are an expert on the controversies surrounding Huckleberry Finn and the novel itself, offer your expert opinion. Should teachers include the novel in the curriculum? Make sure to follow the argument structure: claim, reasons and evidence, and addressing counterarguments.

    Related post: Pros and Cons of Teaching Huckleberry Finn

    Related post: Huckleberry Finn Assessments and Assignments

    Huckleberry Finn unit plan for high school conclusion

    Unit Summary:

    • Pre-reading: “Huck Finn is a Racist”
    • Reading 1: “Breaking Away” (chapters 1-8)
    • Reading 2: “Is Huck Trash?” (chapters 9-16 )
    • Reading 3: “Frauds and Fools” (chapters 17-22)
    • Reading 4: “Stories within Stories” (chapters 23-28)
    • Reading 5: “Huck’s Conflicts” (chapters 29-35)
    • Reading 6: “Twain’s Themes” (chapters 36-43)
    • Culminating Tasks

    I always give my students a week to complete the reading so that students can proceed in a way that works for them and have the time to receive any necessary support.  I try to identify which aspects a given reading pair most naturally to the standards that I need to teach.

    I realize that what works for me may not work for you.  However, I hope that you have found some helpful ideas in my Huckleberry Finn unit plan for high school.

    Featured image by USAG Italy