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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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