Mark Twain’s Huck Finn is a classic American novel, Written in 1885, it is a book that students have read year in and year out in high school literature classes. The language used in the book, especially when the slave Jim is involved has become a contentious issue both in the past and now when communities have called for the banning of the book (see here). Issues of whether to use the N-word have arisen repeatedly. And it is so now as Kristen Krauss, an 11th grade English teacher goes over the initial chapters of the book in a 45-minute lesson I observed on October 10, 2016.
Krauss is a veteran teacher who has taught in elementary and middle schools before coming to Mountain View High School* in 2000. The room she teaches in has benefited from a grant to replace usual pods of three-four desks where students sit to high colorful tables with chairs on rollers and a small sofa in the rear of the room.
At 7:15AM, there are 14 students. Before the chime sounds to begin class, Krauss asks students to take out their tablets and laptops—the school implemented a Bring-Your-Own-Device policy a few years ago—and tells them to review questions and answers they worked on the previous Friday.** Five minutes later, a buzzer launches the lesson. This lesson has five parts.
Krauss asks the class to sit in groups of 3-4 and begins a “warm up” activity. She clicks on a slide displayed on the front whiteboard that asks students about the multiple-choice questions they had been given the previous lesson and for each student to think of a “silly anecdote about yourself as a child.” Students begin interacting in their small groups. One student asks the teacher what an “anecdote” is. Teacher bounces the question back to the class and one student says “it is a story.” Krauss then gives an example of an anecdote from her experience.
Then teacher segues to a series of 10 questions about the story and plot of Huck Finn’s first three chapters. She asks for volunteers to come to the front of the room and read each question that appears on the slide projected on the whiteboard, call on students, and judge the answer. All of the questions ask for students to complete the sentence and are in Actively Learn, a software program that all students have on their devices.
Two boys volunteer. Bob reads the question and William calls on a member of the class and then grades each answer with a + (nailed the answer), a “0” (missed it), and a “0” with a minus sign in it (didn’t come close). Teacher asks students at their desks to also judge the answer. None of the answers by students to the sentence completion questions, she says, will count toward a grade. This is a review for an upcoming quiz.
Here are some of the questions on the slide:
1.Huck Lives with ….
2.Miss Watson is responsible for…
3.Early on Tom and Huck sneak out at night and play …
4.Huck explains that Jim used this story to gain attention among friends by…
I scan the class and see everyone looking at the sentence-completion questions on the whiteboard with eyes on Bob and William. Krauss prompts the two students occasionally.
After the two students go through the first four questions, William asks the teacher if they could do the rest. She says “that would be lovely.” The two students finish the final questions. Krauss compliments Bob and William and they take their seats.
The teacher now asks the class to form small groups at their tables and give their opinions of the first three chapters of Huck Finn. She asks group to consider what was challenging and what was enjoyable in these initial chapters.
She listens to small groups as she moves around the classroom. Halting the small group interaction, she asks the class what they came up with that was challenging and enjoyable. A few students raise their hands and she calls on them and writes their responses on whiteboard. The grammar, one student says. Another says the slang used was hard to understand. Krauss elaborates and extends each of the student’s answers.
Krauss then asks what was enjoyable. No students raise their hands at first. After a few moments, one student says: “I wanted to know what happens next?” Another volunteers that she liked how the author spoke to the reader. And one more student liked that “Huck is really honest.” Again, the teacher expands each student’s answer.
At this point, Krauss moves to the final activity of the lesson. She gets into this segment of lesson by saying that in going over the next few chapters, members of the class will read aloud what Twain has written. She says that some students may get upset at the use of language, particularly the word “nigger,” used over a couple hundred times in the book. Krauss has already given some of the context for Twain’s book that features slavery before the Civil War yet had been written decades after that conflict. Even with that context, the N-word, as some call it, has created controversy across the country since the middle of the 20th century. So, the teacher asks: “As we read aloud from the book, how are we going to handle the language describing Jim?”
Krauss then introduces a 12-minute video excerpt from CBS’s 60 Minutes about how the N-word is handled by teachers and students across the nation.
There is an interview with a book publisher who put out an edition of Huck Finn and replaced “nigger” with the word “slave.” A contrasting view comes from a university scholar who advocates the uses of the word. Each gives their position clearly in the excerpt. There are Interviews with teachers over whether the word should be used in class when reading and discussing the book. The “60 Minutes” journalist also interviewed students who were the only blacks in their classroom (of Krauss’s 14 students, one was African American).
In looking across the room while the video played, I noted students’ rapt attention.
At the end of the video, Krauss says:
“My purpose in showing this video is simply this: what are you thinking of how to approach word in class? The word is there: what do we do with it?”
She asks students to “open their devices and go to Google Classroom and write a sentence about whether to use the N-word in class or not. We will take a vote before reading aloud this week. I want to know what we should do as a class in approaching the word.”
Krauss says that only a few minutes remain in the period. “After you finish,” she says, “submit send your sentences to me.” Students tap away on their devices. Teacher walks around room as students type their sentences. As they are clicking away, she announces that “I will not share your answers with the rest of the class.”
In the last two minutes, Krauss calls the class’s attention to a slide on the whiteboard. The top of the slide has two objectives:
Make an informed and respectful choice about how we will approach the reading of Huck Finn;
Place the novel in the literary historical context in which it was written.
The rest of the slide has instructions for reading chapters 4-6 and answering particular questions.
She goes over these instructions and reminds students not to cut-and-paste paragraphs from other sources; she reminds them to use their words.
Chime dings and the period ends.
* Part of the Mountain View-Los Altos High School District, Mountain View High School has just over 1800 students (2015) and its demography is mostly minority (in percentages, Asian 26, Latino 21, African American 2, multiracial 2, and 47 white). The percentage of students eligible for free-and-reduced price lunches (the poverty indicator) is 18 percent. Eleven percent of students are learning disabled and just over 10 percent of students are English language learners.
Academically, 94 percent of the students graduate high school and nearly all enter higher education. The school offers 35 Honors and Advanced Placement (AP) courses across the curriculum. Of those students taking AP courses, 84 percent have gotten 3 or higher, the benchmark for getting college credit. The school earned the distinction of California Distinguished High School in 1994 and 2003. In 200 and 2013, MVHS received a full 6-year accreditation from the Western Association of Schools and Colleges (WASC). Newsweek ranks MVHS among the top 1% of high schools nationwide. The gap in achievement between minorities and white remains large, however, and has not shrunk in recent years. The per-pupil expenditure at the high school is just under $15,000 (2014). Statistics come from here and mvhs_sarc_15_16
** Bring-Your-Own-Device began two years ago in the District after teacher-led pilot projects at the two high schools demonstrated its viability. For students who do not have a device at home or when one breaks down, the school provides chromebooks.