Friday, July 10 is the final day to register for our 2020 Summer Teachers Institute. In the following videos you can get to know the Institute’s coordinators, Dr. Jocelyn Chadwick and Dr. Matt Seybold. This year the STI is entirely virtual, but also entirely free! If you’d like to find our more and potentially register, click here!
The Center for Mark Twain Studies encourages local elementary school teachers to discuss Mark Twain’s legacy in Elmira and the Southern Tier region of New York State. 2nd grade to 6th grade students from local schools are encouraged take part in this writing contest and submit their creative writing stories. A “local school” is defined as being no more than 25 miles away from Quarry Farm. Students and teachers are asked to read a writing prompt, choose a specific fireplace tile with images inspired by Aesop’s Fables, and write a brand new story.
Quarry Farm is the home where Mark Twain lived for over twenty consecutive summers and is the place where Twain penned The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, and many other important texts. The deadline for the stories is April 24, 2020.
Three winners from three different schools will be chosen by the CMTS Staff. Winners will be able to read their stories on the Quarry Farm porch. Winners will also be able to bring a section of their class or entire classroom (depending on overall size) for a full-day field trip. The tour of the grounds of Quarry Farm will conclude with Mark Twain’s favorite dessert: gingerbread, vanilla ice cream and lemonade!
February 2, 2020, marks Sam Clemens and Livy Langdon’s 150th wedding anniversary. Please be our guest at the 2020 celebration of the happy occasion, with dramatic readings from Mark Twain’s imagined “Diaries of Adam and Eve”, Twain’s own recollection of the wedding after Livy’s death, Ida Langdon’s discerning thoughts about her aunt and uncle, as well as a few surprise performances inspired by Twain’s penchant for bending truth in the service to telling a good story. We promise an unforgettable evening of re-imagining the union of Elmira’s most famous lovers!
The event will take place on Wednesday, February 5 at 7:00pm in the Watson Arena Theater on the Elmira College Campus.
Student Performers and Participants Include:
- Marisa Woodley’23
- Elijah Jordan’23
- Sarah Turner’20
- Music by Patrick Hoose-Saukas’21
- Music by Noah Dorchester’21
- Lighting by Hanna Yoselevich’22
The performance, sponsored by the Center for Mark Twain Studies and Elmira College Theatre Department, is free and open to the public.
The CMTS staff assembled a number of resources for teachers interested in bringing Mark Twain Studies into their classrooms based on this event. Teachers and non-profit institutions may use these resources freely.
Virgie Hoban, in collaboration with the Mark Twain Project and it’s General Editor and Curator, Robert H. Hirst, has created a unique introduction to Twain’s social network. 6 Degrees of Mark Twain combines images and primary sources from the Mark Twain Papers with video interviews with Dr. Hirst and Hoban’s explanatory narrative to explore Twain’s relationships with a diverse sextet of his contemporaries, all of whom were celebrities in their own right. In addition to being a welcome resource for Twainiacs of all stripes, this interactive, multimedia experience would make a great resource for classrooms.
Virgie Hoban is a graduate of University of California, Berkeley (where the Mark Twain Project resides) and now works as a writer for the communications office at the Berkeley library, covering exhibits, collections, events, and the library’s digitization and open access initiatives. She kindly took time to answer a few questions about how 6 Degrees of Mark Twain came together.
1.) How did you become interested in Twain? Have you worked with the Mark Twain Project before?
My father gave me Tom Sawyer to read as a kid, and I loved it. When I was an undergrad at Berkeley, studying English, I read Huck Finn for a class and was blown away by its heart and humor. At some point, I took a tour of the Library for an English class and saw treasures from the Mark Twain Project. This “6 degrees” project was my first time working with or writing about the Mark Twain Project — a dream of mine since I applied for this position.
2.) What surprised you most as you pursued this research? Was there a particular relationship that you found most intriguing? Why?
I have been endlessly amazed at how infinite Twain seems, in his relationships with people and in his opinions on everything in the world. He speaks in such great hyperbole, too, with so much conviction that it feels almost impossible. I loved exploring those sides of him with this very tangible guide: the people he called friends.
There were a couple favorite moments. P.T. Barnum was a quirky one that was weirdly enlightening. I loved the bit about Twain collecting strange letters from Barnum just to learn more about humankind. That was a sort of light-bulb moment that made me feel like I was starting to get to know Twain a bit more. I was also intrigued by Twain’s fascination with Barnum. The guy is this shameless showman — I read articles comparing Barnum to Trump — and yet Twain can’t help but admire him, because he’s got that love for theatrics too. But Twain does sort of keep Barnum at a distance, declining to write ads for the circus, etc. As Bob Hirst told me, it’s hard to put your finger on what exactly is going on between them.
I think my favorite relationship was probably Twain and Helen Keller. It was astounding to see this larger-than-life person shrink in comparison to this woman, in the way Twain praises her. Like I said, I think Twain likes to exaggerate, but when he calls Keller the “8th wonder of the world,” you believe it. Also, I was floored by the way Keller sees right through Twain’s cynicism and old-man griping. There was love and understanding and encouragement in that friendship, which was very sweet to witness.
3.) As you point out, Twain’s life intersected with lots of public figures. How did you narrow it down to this particular half dozen? Were there particular demographics, issues, events, etc. that you wanted to highlight?
Haha, well I joke with my colleagues that I will do a sequel featuring Rudyard Kipling, Thomas Edison, Charles Dickens, Teddy Roosevelt, and hopefully more women. I picked these people with the guidance of Bob Hirst, who brainstormed with me about all the possible candidates. I chose Harriet Beecher Stowe over Dickens because I wanted another woman. Tesla seemed a little wonkier than Edison, and Twain was closer to Grant than Roosevelt. The other relationships were just who I found most interesting, I suppose.
In our episode of the C19: America In The 19th-Century podcast, Matt Seybold took listeners on an audio-tour of Woodlawn Cemetery in Elmira, the resting place of not only Mark Twain, but conductors and stationmasters on the Underground Railroad and many unsung activists and philanthropists. The podcast was one of our major projects of 2019, alongside the launch of several notable resources for scholars and teachers. We are proud to announce that our first resource launch of 2020 is an interactive map of Woodlawn Cemetery, created in collaboration with SmallTown360.
As you can see, the map can be used in a variety of ways. If you are visiting the cemetery, you can use the precise geo-located pins to help you find family plots and even individual headstones, many of which are not clearly demarcated by the maps on the grounds. Each pin also has a short bio associated with it. For both tourists and scholars working remotely, we hope these bios will provide some context for the Elmira which appears in Mark Twain’s writings, as well as encourage further research about early Elmirans and the unusual community they created.
If you have information about one of the people included on our map which you think should be part of their bio, please let us know. In fact, if you are doing research on any aspect of Elmira and the families who resided here during Twain’s lifetime, we’d love to hear about it. Likewise, if there is an gravesite at Woodlawn which you think should be included on our map, let us know. We will continue to update the map in the coming months and years.
In the meantime, if you’d like to learn more about Woodlawn, Elmira, and the peculiar social group which included Mark Twain and his extended family, please check out our episode!
Editor’s Note: In September 2019 members of the Elmira College community organized and performed a revised reading of Mark Twain’s “A True Story, Repeated Word for Word as I Heard It (1874). The following are thoughts and reactions from faculty and students. CMTS has included the script of the stage reading, a slide show, and Karen Johnson’s rehearsal video in the “Resources for Teachers and Students” section of MarkTwainStudies.org.
Jan Kather, Professor of Media Studies: Although we found Mark Twain’s 1874 “word for word” account of former slave and Quarry Farm cook, Mary Ann Cord, problematic because of the repeated inclusion of the N-word, colleagues Hannah Hammond and Karen Johnson, student Sadie Kennett ’21 and I decided to revise the story so that we could (with good conscience) host a staged reading of “A True Story, Repeated Word for Word as I Heard It” for several classes at Elmira College. We were not surprised to find that the students were unaware that Twain had written this story of a slave being miraculously rescued by her son, a story first told to Twain on the porch at Quarry Farm. Many expressed appreciation that he gave voice to the illiterate Mary Ann Cord, who could not have written her story herself (although we do know her descendants have their own, slightly different oral histories of this same incident).
The story of “Aunt Rachel,” as Twain renamed the character, was his first article published in the prestigious The Atlantic Monthly in 1874. Mark Twain scholar Shelly Fisher Fishkin notes that America would never be the same, nor would Twain, who later used this new and compelling emotional awareness of the brutality of slavery later (c. 1883) in the character of Jim in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.
Aside from substituting the word “negro” for the N-word, we decided to make the reading an all woman production. Elmira College’s new Assistant Professor of Theatre Hannah Hammond suggested changing Mark Twain’s recollection to that of his daughter Susy as fondly remembering her father talk about the scene. Hannah explains this revision before the reading, a revision that allowed for theatre major Sadie Kennett ’21 to be part of the production. Luckily Elmira College’s VP for Institutional Research, Planning and Assessment/Title IX Coordinator, Karen Johnson was enthusiastic about reading Aunt Rachel’s story. It was important to us that this story be read by an African American woman, as well as having an African American be part of our guided question and answer discussion where we addressed the substitution of the N-word and the re-imagined all-female cast.
The production was well received, as evident in the following quotes from students who had learned that most often, white men read this story in the voice of Mark Twain:
Ryan Reid ’23: A live performance of a work lets you visualize it so much better. You can put faces to characters and the performance tends to stick with you longer when you have that experience. Personally I enjoyed the performance over the Q/A. I feel like the performance of it just dove into the story so much better. You feel apart of it, like you were a character in the story. I honestly don’t have any quarrels against women acting in men’s roles or vice versa, as I think the women did a great job. Would it be a more true representation if Twain was a man? yes, but doing it this way has a nice creative twist to it. To me, the portrayal of Aunt Rachel by a woman of color keeps the story true like I’ve stated before. Personally it gives me a feeling that the actors are truly the characters they portray. Growing up all you know about Twain is that he was a brilliant writer and really not much else. You may have read a few stories of his as a child but this story from Twain really presents something not often seen by readers.
Kharisma Blake ’23: If “A True Story” were read by a man, it would be read the way it was written and have the original meaning. The change to being read by Twain’s daughter gives the reading more of a window to show women and their voice and place in history that isn’t often shown. With that being said, it was very important that the character of Aunt Rachel was read by an African American woman. It gives authenticity to the character and makes you feel like you are Mark Twain sitting on the porch listening to her story.
Alexander Taylor ’23: My reaction to the live performance was being able to imagine listening to Aunt Rachel say these words directly to Mark Twain. There was a certain tone and vibe in her voice, and as she read it there was a sense of realism, almost as if it was truly Aunt Rachel sitting in that chair. The questions and answers were very informative because after hearing the reading, the information gave more life and meaning to what we just heard. If the reading was by a man, the realistic feeling might be gone, and hearing it through the voice of the women made it sound like it was really Aunt Rachel talking.
Gabby Smith ’23: This presentation was a retelling of Mark Twain’s “A True Story” based on the life of his cook, Mary Ann, who was a slave before being freed because of the Civil War. My reaction to the live performance was that I was able to visualize the story more when I was able to see it being acted out in front of me, compared to reading text. I think that the most informative part of the presentation was the reading itself because students were able to see the retelling of the story. I do not think that this presentation would have been effective if it was read by a man in the role of Twain as the storyteller. It was better with women performing all the roles. It was important to me that “Aunt Rachel” was performed by an African American because it led to more authenticity to the story rather than having a white woman (or man) reading the part.
Samantha Proseus ’23: Personally, I really enjoyed the reading, and the live performance because it was more interesting and easier to understand what was going on. Also, I could see and feel the emotions of characters a lot more. In my opinion, if the presentation was read by a man in the role of Twain as a story teller, it would most likely not be as effective because hearing the story through an African American woman brought it to life, and seemed more authentic. Aside from the overall reading, I feel that the question and answer period was extra beneficial because I always get more out of discussion. I enjoyed the way it was performed with the women, but I’m not exactly sure what it would be like if men were to perform it. I feel like the performance came to life because “Aunt Rachel” was performed by an African American, and I feel like it definitely made the performance come to life. It also was really nice to see how passionate the lady who read it was, and how much it meant to her. I am extremely grateful to have been able to experience the reading and it meant a lot that the lady took time out of her day to learn how to speak as “Aunt Rachel” did in the past because I know how difficult it must’ve been.
Elijah Jordan ’23: The story told during our seminar is very comparable to our reading of Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass in one major way. In both stories the trepidation of slave mothers trying to reconnect with their children is shown. In Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, Douglass recounts that his mother would work a full day in the field, then proceed to walk an exhausting distance to see him for a few moments before heading back to the fields before sunrise. Mary Ann Cord was separated from all of her children as well as her husband, but through both her and her son’s initiative, they were able to come together after thirteen years.
To me the most informative part of the reenactment was the story being told. Hearing it in such an authentic fashion really made the story resonate with me, and it gave me a whole new respect for Karen. I don’t believe that it would’ve been as effective if it were a man (who presumably is white as well) who read the story of an African American woman who survived slavery. There would be a major disconnect. To me it was extremely important that Aunt Rachel was played by an African American woman. Manybstories of minorities are being told/taught by cis, white men so there’s no real authenticity.
Jordan Holt ’23: Both the presentation of the reading and the question and answer period were informative, however, I believe that the actual presentation presented more ideas for consideration. This is due to the fact that is presented an accurate depiction of the challenging and heartbreaking life of a slave woman. In addition, it was more informative because it could be related to other notions and topics discussed in class. As a result, people in the audience begin to think about other aspects of slave life. After listening to this presentation, individuals may be able to obtain a better understanding of what it was like to be a slave and the terrible things in which these people had to endure.
The presentation would have been less effective if it was read by a man in the role of Twain as a storyteller. This is due to the fact that it is better with women performing all of the roles. This is because it allowed the presentation to have a deeper and more effective portrayal. Furthermore, it allowed the audience to connect with the slave woman and understand her story in a more effective manner.
It is immensely important that Aunt Rachel was performed by an African American woman. This story is one that many people should hear, as it is both informative and necessary to convey this story and this part of history to people.
Brianna Costley ’23: When watching the performance of Mark Twain’s “A True Story” you can compare it to the “Narrative of the Life of Fredrick Douglass” in many ways. Both of the stories show just how cruel slavery was and depict how children were forcibly taken from their mothers at an early age. When reading and watching the two you get similar feelings. Both make you see just how wrong it was but also when listening to a woman of color read it, it seems all the more personal. The question and answer part of the presentation was very informative because it helped bring some things up from the presentation that we might not have noticed or thought about. An example is the impact of the presentation being read by all women instead of a man. The reading would not have been as effective if it was read by a man because it is regarding slave children being taken away from their mother; a white man has no idea what this might have been like. Having women readers makes the presentation more genuine. I think it was important that the role of Aunt Rachel was played by an African American woman because there is more power behind an African American woman reading the story than a white reader who has never been oppressed. I think this performance will affect the way I see things like the Mark Twain Study because, before I might have thought of some of his other more famous pieces, but now I might think of this one first because of its powerful message.
A group of forty-six K-12 teachers, librarians, and other educators gathered in Elmira this week for the 2019 Summer Teachers Institute to discuss the challenges and opportunities created by using Mark Twain’s life and work with students from “Generation Z.” The Institute was led by Dr. Jocelyn Chadwick, a professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, recent President of the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE), and author of numerous books on literature and literacy education.
Dr. Chadwick began the Institute by defining what she means by “Generation Z,” a category loosely describing those born after 9/11 and encompassing all the students currently working their way through the K-12 system. Over the past several years, Dr. Chadwick has been conducting fieldwork for NCTE, NBC Learn, and Pearson Publishing by visiting classrooms across the country and conducting interviews with students and teachers. She shared selections from a couple of those interviews and discussed what she was learning about this generation and their educational environments. She described a young student who proclaimed there was no longer any “American Dream,” and suggested that this was indicative of a broader dissatisfaction among Gen Z students with the idea of education as a means to an end, rather than as an end in itself. Dr. Chadwick assured the audience of teachers that their students will do the work if they are persuaded that the texts and tasks being assigned are directly and immediately relevant to their lives and communities. Furthermore, she insisted, Twain’s enormous body of public and private writings is well-suited to addressing many of Gen Z’s most common concerns, including financial precarity, community service, blended families, and technological change.
During the second session, Matt Seybold, the resident scholar from the Center for Mark Twain Studies, used the example of social media as something which Gen Z students and their teachers were likely to have strong opinions about. Using demographic tables from the U.S. Census, Dr. Seybold summarized the media environment of Twain’s life, as new printing technology made periodicals less expensive, more accessible, and more diversified. He asked participants to imagine the butterfly effects of changing, over the course of a few decades, from a nation with a few hundred periodicals concentrated on the eastern seaboard to one which published 2.5 billion issues in a single year. Participants speculated that people would be more informed and more inclined to imagine the world beyond their daily experiences, but would also be unprepared to be discerning about what they were reading and might depend primarily upon publications that reinforced their existing beliefs. Dr. Seybold also pointed out that celebrities like Mark Twain (or Taylor Swift) are one manifestation of Americans’ desire for national identity amidst this cultural cacophony.
During the first breakout session, small groups of teachers discussed how the generic Generation Z student who Dr. Chadwick described resembled students in their classes and how some of the Twain texts they had read could be used to generate or supplement discussion of the topics which resonated with such students. Upon reconvening, one group of primarily elementary instructors reported that unconventional and fractured family structures were common in their districts and that students were likely to empathize with characters and narrators who felt insecure and who struggled to adjust to changing environments. A second group of elementary instructors were drawn to the theme of community-building and also community exclusivity, as in Adventures of Tom Sawyer and “The Man Who Corrupted Hadleyburg.” They suggested that these texts could be leveraged to increase student “buy-in” for cross-curricular and blended classrooms. They wanted to look particularly for ways Twain could be paired with historical contexts and visual arts projects. They also expressed a desire for texts which dealt with diversity and human rights, but did so without vulgarity or other potentially incendiary content.
A group of middle school teachers reiterated the desire for pairing and blending fiction with non-fiction, literature with history, literacy with other subject matter instruction. They wanted to know more about how Twain used games to educate his own children. With reference to “disenfranchised students,” they were looking for how Twain represented struggles for self-definition and self-esteem. A group of secondary teachers reiterated the importance of framing texts around the inevitable questions of adolescence and young-adulthood: “What I am doing and why am I doing it?”, “Where am I going and how do I get there?,” and “Who am I?” They also acknowledged the sticky wicket which they need to navigate: they want to engage with topics that are important to their students but they also want to teach texts which create a safe distance between the classroom and the frightful world. They want relevance to Gen Z, but without making students feel “at risk.”
After lunch, Dr. Seybold gave a brief history of Mark Twain’s connection to Elmira with particular attention to the domestic instability of Samuel Clemens’s youth and the conflict between his habitual itineracy and his desire to provide his wife and daughters with a stable home. Dr. Chadwick proceeded to address some of the cross-curricular opportunities which could be explored using primary sources, including Bills of Sale from slave auctions, selections from African-American Newspapers, artwork by Tim Rollins and Kids of Survival, and speeches by Frederick Douglass. The first day closed with an open-ended discussion, as Dr. Chadwick called upon individual teachers to articulate what had surprised them about either Generation Z or Mark Twain during the first day of the Institute. Several teachers expressed surprise at the breadth and diversity of Twain’s writing and particularly at the potential to move away from teaching Twain exclusively as a commentator on race in America. Others admitted to being unaware of how influential Twain became in his own lifetime, amassing enough cultural power to influence political campaigns, amplify the voices of younger artists and activists, and bring publicity to colonial atrocities.
On Thursday morning, Institute participants congregated on the porch at Quarry Farm. After breakfast, Dr. Chadwick led a session on one of her favorite subjects: using Twain’s fiction as a model for teaching the formal elements of writing, particularly as they are outline in the education standards of New York State. For more than an hour, the group discussed how a single famous passage from Adventures of Huckleberry Finn could be used to teach genre, audience, allusion, symbolism, anaphora, verisimilitude, and many other ELA terms and concepts. During the breakout session, participants analyzed other passages of their choosing from the reader and shared their ideas for using these passages to teach close-reading and writing. Selections discussed came from Twain’s poems, speeches, sketches, and letters, as well as his novels. Several groups recommended pairing with texts by other authors, from Harper Lee and Toni Morrison to Pope Urban II and The Beatles.
The second session of the day began with Dr. Chadwick reading Twain’s “A True Story, Repeated Word For Word As I Heard It” on the very spot which the story is set. After her reading, Dr. Chadwick led a wide-ranging discussion of the story.
During lunch, teachers toured the grounds at Quarry Farm and mingled with one another, as well as with a few fourth-graders from Michelle Halperin’s class at Hendy Elementary in Elmira. During the Spring term, Dr. Chadwick visited Mrs. Halperin’s class both via video-conferencing and in person to discuss what they had been doing with Twain, including reading “A True Story” and Adventures of Tom Sawyer. After lunch, the students joined the teachers on the porch and answered questions about their experiences reading and listening to Twain’s works. These precocious young Elmirans felt that Tom Sawyer, in particular, compelled them and their classmates to be imaginative, even those who weren’t naturally inclined to be. They were able to remember specific details from the story and even half-remember direct quotations. Even under pressure they refused to admit that any of their classmates had not been enthusiastically engaged by the material. If nothing else, this proves they had learned to consider their audience.
The final session of the Institute focused on memory and memorization. Dr. Seybold began by reading a short selection from a work-in-progress about how Twain used specific works of music to memorialize his wife and daughters after they died. He listened to these specific works of music almost daily, using them to stimulate both his memory and his imagination. In other places, like the speech “Memory & Morals,” Twain discusses the importance of converting the vagaries of memory into productive lessons. Dr. Seybold also summarized some of the games and pneumonic devices Twain developed for the purposes of memorizing historical facts and his own lectures. This prefaced a discussion of what we require students to remember and why. What are the justifications for memorization and how can memorization be better integrated with imaginative and creative work?
Dr. Chadwick and the Center for Mark Twain Studies left the Institute with promises of updated resources and continued support. In addition to the provided reader, Institute participants have access to a digital archive of primary sources, opportunities for continued engagement with Dr. Chadwick and other Twain scholars, including eligibility for a six-week graduate course at Elmira College during Fall semester.
The winners of the 2nd Annual Quarry Farm Fireplace Creative Writing Contest have come to Quarry Farm and recieved the prize, a personal tour inside Quarry Farm for themselves and their classmates. Two area students in grades 2-6 were selected for their creative writings inspired by the fireplace tiles in the Quarry Farm Parlor: Treya Das Banerjee (Carder Elementary, Corning) and Elizabeth McNett (Finn Academy, Elmira).
Carder Elementary (Corning, NY)
Finn Academy (Elmira, NY)
Mark Twain often encouraged his children to create and tell their own stories based off the tiles adorning the parlor fireplace. The 24 tiles around the fireplace depict fables written by ancient Greek storyteller, Aesop, who utilized animals, such as crows, snakes, mice, and foxes, to illustrate moral lessons.
The winning students and their classmates received a personal tour inside Quarry Farm, something that is normally only open to Twain Scholars. In addition, the were able read their story next to the Quarry Farm parlor fireplace, tour the grounds at Quarry Farm, and enjoy Mark Twain’s favorite dessert: gingerbread, vanilla ice cream, and lemonade.
CMTS encourages all local schools to participate next year. For more information contact Director Joseph Lemak at [email protected]
Editor’s Note:CMTS is proud to partner with the Mark Twain Forum, which has long been a leading venue for reviews of new publications in Mark Twain Studies. Visit their extensive archive. Follow the link at the bottom of the page to read the complete review. A portion of Amazon purchases made via links from Mark Twain Forum Book Reviews is donated to the Mark Twain Project.
Teaching Huckleberry Finn: Why and How to Present the Controversial Classic in the High School Classroom. By John Nogowski. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, 2018. Pp. 179. Paper, 5-7/8″ x 8-3/4″. $35.00. ISBN 978-1-4766-7428-5.
On the May 26, 2019, installment of CBS News Sunday Morning, in a segment called “On the River,” Lee Cowan reported on Tim DeRoche’s The Ballad of Huck and Miguel: A Novel (2018; Redtail Press, with illustrations by Daniel Gonzalez), a rewrite of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Proclaimed “a Huck Finn for today,” the novel was highlighted for its contemporary reimagining of Clemens’s classic. DeRoche explained that he sought to tell a story true to the original novel while making the text relevant to and for the twenty-first century (achieved most immediately by changing the Jim character to an undocumented immigrant and moving action to Los Angeles). In the segment, Cowan offers a context for the new work by discussing the original novel, explaining some of its initial readers “didn’t find it such a charming tale” and declaring “it’s now required reading in most schools.” This recent release and the recent news item show the continued relevance of Huckleberry Finn, but Cowan’s assertion that the book is required reading shows a limited realization about the current state of Mark Twain reading in schools.
In the current world of K-12 education, there are few texts that are literally “required reading in most schools.” Plenty of individual schools require texts for their students, and some works, of course, appear more often than others. However in today’s world, it is no longer the norm to expect that certain books be taught annually across the board at all schools. And despite the label of “Common Core,” students do not necessarily navigate a common curricular path through the contemporary classroom. The Common Core for English/Language Arts standards provides would-be teachers with lists of “exemplar texts,” and the use of these texts varies depending on both teacher preference and text availability. (The list of exemplar texts does promote The Adventures of Tom Sawyer as a text for middle school students, but its sequel does not appear on the equivalent list for secondary student reading.)
The selection of texts in the modern high school classroom is influenced by many factors. In the post-No Child Left Behind classroom, standardized testing remains dominant, and various forms of testing and other school requirements regularly cut time from teaching, making the choice of those literary works that are to be studied critical. However, even after factoring in the available time for a specific work to be taught, teachers then have to consider the availability and condition of copies (never guaranteed in an era with consistently limited resources, even with the move to e-texts in many schools); the curricular unit plans that will be used to teach those texts; the forms of assessment to be administered; and how well received the selection will be by the students, parents, and administration. With all of these factors at play, texts that are perceived as difficult and challenging are often avoided, and those works which evoke controversy are more and more regularly avoided by teachers as they plan their lessons. All of these issues are brought forth in John Nogowski’s Teaching Huckleberry Finn: Why and How to Present the Controversial Classic in the High School Classroom (2018, McFarland). Nogowski recounts his experiences, challenges, and triumphs teaching Huck in a Florida high school (although not necessarily in that order).
Readers who are removed from the high school experience may find some of the account surprising, but Nogowski does a good job painting a thorough version of his experience in a few pages. His book is a quick and appealing read driven and enhanced by his clear passion for his work in the classroom and for his students. Nogowski starts his preface by downplaying his own scholarship, saying it “might not be termed academic mainstream” (1), but this book is clearly meant to be a pedagogical approach to the use of the novel and not an academic treatise. Readers should approach Teaching Huckleberry Finn as a case study in teaching practices. Given that expectation, Nogowski is perhaps overstating the value he sees in teaching Clemens’s novel since those coming to this text likely are already convinced it should be taught. But, as he reveals throughout his work, there is still a need to argue for the teaching of this work with some school stakeholders. Unfortunately, some school administrators see the novel as too controversial a text to be worth the potential challenges. In the final chapter of this book, Nogowski details meeting an administrative roadblock after seven years of teaching Clemens’s novel. Despite his documented success reaching historically struggling students through Mark Twain and finding that students connect with Huck’s “street smarts” and quick thinking (66), Nogowski was blocked from continuing to use Twain’s novel once he was assigned to teach an Advanced Placement course. Apparently, he moved out from under the radar when he drew this teaching assignment, and the administration, which should have been aware of his teaching throughout the years, suddenly became wary of his text selection.
Clearly, Nogowski has both experience and expertise with Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. However, his efforts to solidify his own ethos threaten at times to overstep, as he declares that, despite the fact he cannot and does not call himself a scholar, “I doubt there are many educators in America who have taken Twain’s work […] into the places I have” (2). There are a few moments early in the text which Nogowski seems to try a balancing act, disclaiming his expertise as a scholar while proclaiming his authority as a practical teacher. These attempts threaten to disrupt his purpose because of distractions. Luckily once he gets into the discussion of his actual teaching (which starts as early as the first true chapter), they stop. Having been a sportswriter before entering teaching, Nogowski knows how to write economically and engagingly, and his charming style enhances the overall work. Although one might presume a limited and very specific readership for a book of this type, any reader could pick up this work and both follow and enjoy it.
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The Mark Twain Forum Review Editor is Barbara Schmidt.
Teachers at all levels may be intrigued by this recent episode of the C19 podcast featuring (and produced by) Koritha Mitchell of Ohio State University. The episode is not exclusively about Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Mitchell considers a range of texts by authors from various historical periods and with various racial identities. But Twain’s novel is prominent and she also alludes to the NewSouth edition of the novel which replaced the n-word with slave. Mitchell says, “The Huck Finn example is important because C19 scholars likely believe its more directly related to their work than the aforementioned books by [Randall] Kennedy and [Jabari] Asim. But what makes it even more important is that people working on the 19th century also seem to view the debate in terms of whether Twain is being censored, rather than considering how they might hold themselves to a higher standard as teachers and scholars.”
Central to Dr. Mitchell’s pedagogical perspective is her classroom covenant, portions of which she discusses in detail. This document, along with further commentary, can be viewed in full at her website: KorithaMitchell.com
You can subscribe to the C19 podcast on iTunes, SoundCloud, and other popular platforms. Check out other projects from C19: The Society of 19th-Century Americanists at their website: C19Society.org