Huck Finn

I’m wondering about the use of Huck Finn as a novel for tenth grade students. Our English teacher is committed to the use of the novel, spends approximately ten weeks teaching it, and has limited success. Approximately 32% of the students fail the class during this marking period, many refusing to participate for the duration of the unit. They HATE it. Honestly, he works hard and tries multiple methods to reach all students, feels it’s absolutely a necessary classic for this class. As the principal, I struggle with supporting the teacher’s right to make decisions about content and novels and rigor and the failure rate.

 Is this an appropriate novel? Are there other classics that are better suited to our more reluctant learners? Are the difficulties with literacy in our student population compounded on a novel such as Huck Finn? How do I respond to my teacher’s total commitment to this novel if it’s not the best choice? Do I just support him and continue to force the novel for all students? This tenth grade course literally becomes a stumbling block to graduation for a number of students. I clearly support the high expectations for our students, but am not sure Huck Finn is worth the fight.

  1. Perhaps the teacher needs to take a break from teaching this novel and step back and really look at what he/she is trying to or wants to accomplish with this novel. Using a fresh eye and looking at the amount of time spent on it, how it is taught and what is extracted from the text. The novel is useful on almost every critical lens on the ELA. Maybe a year or two break is what is needed.

  2. I agree that Huck Finn is an important piece of canon and should definitely be taught. I think you’re wise for not demanding the teacher pull the novel without prior thought.

    Without knowing more about the class or what the teacher does with this unit, I have a few thoughts:

    1.) 10 weeks is a long time to hold onto a book. My longest single-work unit is with a Shakespeare play, which lasts for about 7 weeks (remedial freshmen English.) By the time we finish, the students are more than ready to be done with it.

    2.) If the class is for remedial readers, I agree that the book alone may be too much for their abilities. However, there are activities that the teacher can do that can help the students better grasp the text. Meet with the teacher and the department head and go over the required assignments to determine if the level of difficulty is too great.

    3.) If the class is for college-prep or higher students, and the amount and type of work is appropriate for the grade level, the students need to suck it up and do the work–that’s all there is to it. I see many many students who don’t want to do something, so they’ll just skip it, figuring they can somehow make up points later on. Life is often about getting through tedious and difficult tasks, and if the students choose to fail rather than challenge themselves, then the problem lies with the students and their parents.

    As a freshmen English teacher, I get a lot of students from the junior high who have never had to face any academic consequences for poor grades before. They come to high school with the attitude that they’ll get passed along simply for showing up, and when they realize that they need to work to pass my class and need to pass my class to get the credits necessary to graduate, they often don’t know what to do. This isn’t just my remedial students, either–it’s my college-prep students as well. Often the wake-up call doesn’t come until junior or senior year, when they’re facing a number of make-up classes, and for a sad lot too many, the wake-up call doesn’t come until the weeks leading up to graduation, when they realize that freshman English class they failed and never bothered to make up has come back to haunt them.

    Like I said, I don’t know much about the teacher, the unit, or the students, but I generally feel little sympathy for students that just don’t want to work, and who figure that they’ll find an “easy” way around the hard work, such as flunking a class and then taking summer school.

  3. this is a great question and the kind of question we must continue to ask. Sadly, i don’t know the answer. truly, the teacher is probably the only one who does. He knows his students (or should!). Maybe his personal attachment to the novel (and I can understand that!) clouds his judgement and perhaps deep down he knows it’s time to move on to a different text. Or maybe he’s right. I’m just happy you are asking the question.

    Keep at it!


  4. Ten weeks? For a novel? That’s death. I read 200 books a year and I can take ten weeks to read a novel, but I would never force ten weeks of any single work on my students. I am all in favor of teaching classics, but I don’t see any book ever written worth killing the enthusiasm for reading. No book is more important than my students. I taught in Las Vegas for eight years, every grade from 9-12 (now teaching middle school in CNY), so I had the opportunity to teach a lot of different work to classes of 40 kids a period. In my worst class I never had more than 10% fail any quarter. It comes down to some foolish notion of cultural superiority (students MUST read this book) trumping literacy and the joy of reading.

    That said, there are a lot of ways to have students be engaged in reading AND writing about what they read. I would cut the length of the unit down dramatically, incorporate presentations and response writing, make the book relevant to today’s students. My 8th graders read three novels this year (Outsiders-Rumble Fish- That Was Then This Is Now) plus 700 pages from the text. We spent 17 days on each novel, using literature circles, so that only 10 kids had the same book in any period. They wrote a half page journal entry for each day of reading and I had only 2% students fail the last marking period, with 4% being the highest. Personally, I don’t see SE Hinton as “great” but the students all read about 500 pages of novels (in addition to the 700 pages we did in the text).

    When I taught 10th grade, my students loved the Shakespeare unit (Julius Caesar) because I did a variety of activities with it. Many of my students were ELL, so we listened to the cds of actors performing it, we wrote about “power” and politics/relationships, we discussed loyalty and betrayal, we wrote scenes in Modern English… and all in 3 or 4 weeks. I once read an article in the English Journal that stated boldly that no unit should last longer than two weeks and I took that to heart. Instead of hammering students, especially 10th graders, I’d rather expose them, have them think, develop their writing skills and move on.

    I agree with a lot of the previous posts, There are just so many great strategies to engage students without lowering expectations and standards.

  5. Hi, I followed Will’s link to your blog. It’s interesting to get a principal’s perspective on the teaching process – one that I suspect may be hard to diplomatically share in a public forum.

    A thought that occurs to me from reading your post is that perhaps it isn’t the novel itself, but the approach to the novel that may be producing the negative reaction from the students. Without going into all the pros and cons of using a cultural canon for literature assignments, this problem may also be viewed as an opportunity to examine pedagogic options. I don’t, of course, know anything about this situation. However I do know that from outside the classroom, few of the contingencies that impinge on instruction are visible to an observer. I also know that a teacher’s beliefs about teaching, students, and the content being offered them have a strong impact on student engagement.

    Huck Finn is loaded with thematic content regarding race and culture that could arouse squirming and irritation for many. Exploiting this potential for discussion and reflection suggests an approach such as literature circles or some other reader response method. A group of high school English teachers I attended a workshop with found value in this list of instructional strategies. It never hurts to expand the toolbox.

  6. Quickly taking on significant topics, I find your choice of focus interesting for a new blogging educator. Definitely a difficult situation which you write about.

    I would address the need to make real life connections with the students and the literature book. One would have to ask, is reading the book as important as reading about the book? Huck Finn or not, if the teacher is not engaging the students, start wit plan B…maybe there can be another book they can read prior to Huck Finn as preparation for the “classic.” For example, not to minimize skills, but I’ve seen adults read a children’s Bible prior to tackling the traditional Bible version for their bible studies.

    Teaching differentiated reading strategies, at all levels, should help. I do not find reading the classics as important; however, knowing about them could be useful for the student later down their experiences.

    I’ve been following your group via Weblogg-ed postings. I, in Phoenix, working as our school Technology Integration & Media Specialist, like to see teachers/principals/administrators involved with their technologies! I am still amazed how far and fast blogs connect communities. Good luck with your experiences!

    The things I do on my vacation…

  7. I think Huck Finn is an essential text. There are a lot of ways to study material that will make it more accessible to reluctant readers. One of my co-workers taught the novel with lower level students, requiring small groups of 2 or 3 to do presentations. Each group was required to present a different chapter. The students helped each other understand in this way. Also, reading journals might be a real help with reluctant readers. In a way, it forces the students to engage in the text, which is something that eager readers usually do anyway.

    Rick’s blogging suggestion is good. My students enjoyed The Awakening when I set up a wiki for them to use to ask each other questions.

  8. Has this teacher used technology to engage his students? I think Huck Finn is a wonderful example of American Literature written by a true master. I also understand the teacher’s students’ frustrations. It can be a chore to read and for ten weeks! A few years ago I had a class of uninterested readers and the anthology we were using did not help. So, I started a “blog” (it was really a bulletine board where students could post comments) for my students and had them comment on prompts I posted. This soon evolved into commenting on what others wrote for the prompts. Some of the student even logged on at home and shared their ideas. This wasn’t even assigned! That year 80% of the students could remember every selection we read from the anthology relate the story elements. An believe me most of the stories were not very interesting. Could the students reading Huck Finn be engaged in a similar way?

    I’ve been searching this summer for other inovative ways to use the Web 2.0 in my classroom and came across a teacher that has his students set up a MySpace style profile called MedievalSpace (
    for characters from Shakespears Richard III. What a great way to engage students with something not so enjoyable using what they already find quite entertaining. I wonder what a MississippiRiverSpace profile would look like? Who would Huck list as his ‘Space buddies? Just some wild ponderings.

    Anyway, enjoy the Web 2.0 and good luck with Huck Finn.

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