Making Huck Finn Relevant to Disengaged Readers

by Pattie Sloan and Joan Flora: two teachers challenging classroom status quo

scout_300Do you like irony?   After teaching–okay, over-teaching–To Kill a Mockingbird several years ago, I decided to show the class the film. After the first fifteen minutes, a voice from the darkness incredulously calls out, “You mean Scout’s a girl?”

GROAN!  That class taught me so much: in covering every literary  element of the novel, I had not allowed the students to connect to the novel’s humanity.  My over-teaching sucked the life out of an American masterpiece.  Don’t get me wrong.  I love irony but not when it rears its ugly head as non-engagement and non-learning.

My resolve:

  • Students need to know how their learning is useful
  • Students must know how the text we read pertains to them now
  • Students  must know how they can apply what they learned from what they’ve read (and it’s not just to prepare for the next literature class)
  • Students must understand the worthy struggle of men and women against great odds who learn or fail to learn profound lessons that can alter a reader’s life

My work with students was missing the characters’ humanity in the works we read.  Of course “outlier” students who already read deeply connected  to the texts with or without me.  Although I’m grateful for such students, I’m not thinking of them as I plan my connections–I have bigger plans for them, which I’ll write about in future posts.  This post is dedicated of the majority of dutiful and not-so-dutiful readers who need a life line to engage them in complex literacy.

I’m thinking of the students who somehow conclude that Of Mice and Men is about a dead puppy and a couple of homeless guys.  I’m thinking of the students who come to class everyday but who will later claim, usually loudly in some very public forum, that they never actually read a book their entire career as students.  I don’t want my work to be misrepresented and dismissed that way.

My aha: I can’t randomly grab  concepts and ??????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????literary devices, stack them on top of one another,  and hope the novel, short story, or article means something to my students after they leave my classroom.  I can’t just plop idea on top of idea, and  hope students make meaning from that.  Because the bulk of them do not.

What I Discovered: The pieces (concepts) actually do fit together, and it is my job to find the pieces and demonstrate to my students how it all comes together and has meaning.

My goal  is creating new and better ways to make student experiences relevant and applicable to the world they soon will inherit.  This challenges me to look into the literature and to find connections to our world.

Huck Finn: Trafficking Jim
In analyzing the heart of Huck Finn, the character of Jim stands apart as a moral compass who deeply impacts our hero, Huck.  Jim, a slave,  was a victim of what we now call human trafficking.  Here’s irony: the most vulnerable, honest, compassionate person in the novel had his life ripped from him as he was forced into  servitude to a society that condoned its own behavior.

263094-humantrafficking-1317288015-162-640x480You might argue that Jim is a runaway slave from the deep South, and, therefore, he becomes a history lesson.  But I argue back that this is our current society (see resolve #2 above).  Men, women and children from around the world are trafficked every day.  To help make this point relevant while we read Huck Finn, my students research and list the products harvested or made by trafficked men  and women: coffee, tomatoes, beans, cocoa, leather goods, garments, glass bangles, gravel and the list goes on (see Products of Slavery for a global map with products made through human trafficking).  Don’t worry–when my students graduate and infiltrate your communities, they won’t scowl at you as you buy tomatoes, coffee, and chocolate, but I hope they point out the availability of responsibly sourced products that don’t contribute to human suffering.  Look to our Valentine’s post in February.  See?  You can take action, too.

One problem with studying global maps of trafficking is that it might allow students to conclude that trafficking doesn’t happen in the bucolic northwest (aka: “You mean Scout’s a girl?”).  Check out these news articles:

Here are some of the disturbing facts from the Not for Sale human trafficking website:

  • Nearly 30 million people are trafficked globally on an annual basis, the largest percentage being women and children.


  • Human trafficking is growing in the crime industry, second in scope only to the drug trade and equal to arms.  Revenue from human trafficking is estimated at more than $32 billion annually.
  • About 200,000 of those trafficked globally are in the USA.
  • There are twice as many slaves today as there were in Abraham Lincoln’s time.

Love the Olympics, Super Bowls and World Cups?  We do, but you must know the darker side of such events:

CNN ran a report that gave this staggering statistic:The Number: Average price of slave has decreased

Where does slavery occur? Just about anywhere people are vulnerable.

Why? Because good people sometimes do not know what is happening around the world.

And here is where it gets tricky: because the human trafficking is run by cartels and mafias, the only accurate description I can give of it is this: an iceberg. We can only see the a portion of what is actually occurring because the rest is hidden by a shadowy underworld.

So how do we make the subject of human trafficking matter to my students as they read Huck Finn?  We add the missing piece to our literature, which is humanity.

Tune in next week to understand how students make their own connections between the past of Huck Finn and their current world.  Know that I employ all the strategies of close reading  and discussion that we posted previously to facilitate students’ observations.  Don’t gloss over that work because it’s the basis for the action our students are about to take, as well as a progression of becoming deeper readers and thinkers on their own.

And, please, for our own learning, consider this quote from William Wilberforce, “You may choose to look the other way, but you can never again say that you did  not know.”  Next week I’ll share what we do with our knowledge because awareness is the first step into changing the world.




About Teaching it Forward

We are high school language arts teachers in Oregon.
This entry was posted in Education, Social Action, To Kill a Mockingbird, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Making Huck Finn Relevant to Disengaged Readers

  1. Carol says:

    My dream retirement involves traveling domestically and internationally to get the job done on environmental causes.

  2. This design is wicked! You definitely know how to keep a reader amused. Between your wit and your videos, I was almost moved to start my own blog (well, almost…HaHa!) Wonderful job. I really enjoyed what you had to say, and more than that, how you presented it. Too cool!

  3. Pingback: Huck Finn in a Global Classroom, pt 2 | Teaching it Forward

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