When You Have to Teach Huck Finn: Supporting Students to Read Challenging Literature

Let me begin this post by explaining my thing with The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn: I understand that Mark Twain is a great author. I can even understand some of what makes Huck Finn a great novel. But that doesn’t change the fact that a) I don’t like teaching it and b) my students struggle mightily with reading it.

So what do you do when you’ve got a work like Huck Finn, that just stymies your students? How can you support them to experience this work of literature, without driving them (and you) crazy?

I’m going to suggest three options, all of which I’ve tried:

Don’t Require Students to Read the Whole Book

Now, before you roll your eyes at me and my low standards, hear me out: I don’t advocate doing the greatest-hits approach on everything you read in your English class. For most works, I’d argue that the entire piece is essential. For example, it’s hard to imagine only reading some of Fahrenheit 451; the way the novel is structured, there just isn’t a good way to segment it or summarize sections of it (and also come on Fahrenheit 451 is only like 180 pages long so suck it up kids).

But with a novel like Huck Finn, you can absolutely pick and choose which chapters you ask students to read and become familiar with, while summarizing others.

How do you choose which chapters are essential and which are not? That all depends on what your Driving Question for your unit is (see our previous post for more information on Driving Questions). If your emphasis is on the way Huck Finn treats racism and slavery, you might highlight chapters in which those themes appear most prominently. On the other hand, maybe you want students to closely examine the relationship between Huck and Jim and how it changes throughout the novel. Either of these options might lead you to generate a different list of essential chapters for students to work with.

The advantage of this strategy is that students feel as if their attention is being meaningfully focused on something, and they consequently tend to put a bit more effort in. It also gives you a bit of breathing room in terms of instructional time: if you aren’t working with the entire novel, it gives you more time to go in depth on the portions you have selected.

But there are obvious disadvantages, too, the most obvious being that students most likely won’t read the entire novel, perhaps ever. Another challenge is that you have to not only do the work of selecting the essential chapters, but also ensure that the context given around those chapters is enough for students to string everything together. That can be tricky, depending on the novel.

Although it has its disadvantages, I’d argue that choosing essential chapters is still worth a try, depending on the work of literature you apply it to. I’ve used it - to varying degrees of success - with Huck Finn, To Kill a Mockingbird, and various Shakespeare plays. Give it a whirl. Let me know what you think.

Have Regular Discussions in Class

Students need lots of opportunities to talk about their learning. As it turns out, reading classic literature is pretty hard (more on this in a minute), and talking about it is one way to demystify it and acknowledge that everyone - possibly even the teacher - struggles with it in some way.

In designing our PBA units that include a work of literature, Chris and I always build in discussion days, and we deliberately teach whole- and small-group discussion skills as part of our ongoing curriculum.

One favorite tool for a literature discussion is TodaysMeet, a tool that enables your students to have a safe online chat room in which to discuss whatever topic you pose to them. A specific way to use TodaysMeet is to put half of your class in an “inner circle” of chairs/desks, facing each other, to discuss the book aloud. For us, this typically takes the form of a Socratic seminar. You can then have the other half of your class in the “outer circle,” arranged around the inner circle, with devices (Chromebooks, tablets, smartphones), all set up on TodaysMeet. Use your classroom’s projector to project the TodaysMeet discussion up on the screen for all to see. The students in the outer circle can be typing their thoughts in response to the inner circle’s discussion as it’s happening. The outer circle can also pose additional questions for the inner circle to consider. Let the groups operate in this way for part of your class period, then have students switch roles.

The benefits to this strategy are many:

  • Students have a chance to participate in the literature discussion both verbally and nonverbally, which plays to students’ different strengths

  • Students will often pose more far-reaching thoughts in the backchannel - it feels less risky to them somehow

  • Your Socratic seminar can be a smaller group of students, which lends itself to better conversation, typically

  • The students in the outer circle have an engaging task to keep them connected to what’s happening in the inner circle, for maximum time on task

Give Your Students Additional Supports

As I mentioned before, reading classic literature is really quite difficult, and yet we often expect students to take their novel home and dutifully read the assigned chapters each night. Setting aside the problem of a lack of equity in students having time and space to complete this at-home reading, the larger problem is that many students just don’t have the reading stamina to tackle this type of literature on their own.

I prefer to keep most of my students’ reading time in class (yes, I provide a lot of time for them to read in class), and I encourage them to use supports:

  • Sparknotes: I openly talk to my students about how Sparknotes can be helpful in their reading. In fact, I talk to them about how I use Sparknotes when I’m planning a literature unit for the first time, because I don’t want to miss a theme or symbol or piece of characterization that might be valuable. Because my units are designed around Driving Questions that are open-ended and ask students to bring multiple skills together in a culminating task, Sparknotes doesn’t really help my students “cheat” in any way. It’s unlocking some of the mysteries of the novel for them, so that they can start thinking beyond the surface layer of comprehension.

  • Audiobooks: the idea of providing my students with an audio version of the novels we read in a school year is not my own - I got it from Cheryl Morris, a brilliant teacher whom I met on Twitter. Over the years, I’ve found that a lot of students will stick with a tough piece of literature a lot longer if someone is there to read with them. If my end goal is for the student to experience that piece of literature, it seems to me that an audiobook makes a lot of sense. The first time I tried this strategy was with - you guessed it - Huck Finn. Fortunately, there are free audiobooks of it readily available, so I found what I thought was the best one and wrote the URL up  on the classroom whiteboard, encouraging all students to give it a try. Many students told me at the end of the unit that they wouldn’t have even attempted to read the book without that support - sounds like a winner to me. When I couldn’t find a free audiobook of a novel we were reading, I… made my own. Time-consuming? A little. But totally worth it. More on that in a future post.

Now that I've written this impossibly long post on supporting your students to read challenging literature, I’m hoping at least one of these strategies sounded helpful or sparked a new idea for you. If so, let me know. If not, let me know that, too!

Happy teaching!  

Erin DickeyComment