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Classroom Activities

Activity 1: A Writer's Inspiration

Activity 2:A Report from the 21st Century

Activity 3: Tall Tales and Dark Slides

Activity 4: Powerful Memories, Powerful Words

Activity 5: Scrapbooks: The Collecting of Creative Ideas

A Writer's Inspiration

Mark Twain, 1907

Mark Twain, 1907
Courtesy The Mark Twain House, Hartford

Objective: Students explain and test the value of humor in reflecting on and writing about everyday life, both in Mark Twain’s and their lives.

Activity Description

In the first activity students will be asked to consider Mark Twain as “the enormous noticer” pointed out in the film and the Web site, and to think about the humor he found in ordinary, everyday details. In Part A, challenge students to find the humor in the details they will be recording in their journals. In Part B, review the different types of humor listed. Help students analyze the similarities between Twain’s and contemporary comics’ styles of humor and their observations about their times.

As an introduction to Twain’s wit, share some of his more notable quotations below with your students.

“‘Classic.’ A book which people praise and don’t read.”

“Few things are harder to put up with than the annoyance of a good example.”

“Always do right. This will gratify some people & astonish the rest.”

“One of the most striking differences between a cat and a lie is that a cat has only nine lives.”

* In addition to the quotes above, you can also have students find comic Twain passages and quotes in the Interactive Scrapbook that they find particularly funny or interesting.

What do your students think Twain was saying when he made each of these statements? Challenge students to think about how truly contemporary Twain was when compared with today’s comics, and how universal his themes were. Lead students to see that the wry commentaries on everyday life by humorists such as Bill Cosby, Jerry Seinfeld and Jay Leno are very much in the Twain tradition. Have them consider how, although times might have changed, examples of the human condition have not. Discuss how this helps make Twain timeless and relevant today.

Extended Activity

Ask students to read the first two chapters of Tom Sawyer, looking for details that they think Samuel Clemens might have drawn from his boyhood memories in Hannibal. Passages are available in chapter one of the Interactive Scrapbook online, as well as Selected Writings. Have them make notes and share their findings in a class discussion. Encourage them to read the remainder of the book.

National Standards

This activity fulfills the following standards established by the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE)

1. Students read a wide range of print and non-print texts to build an understanding of texts, of themselves, and of the cultures of the United States and the world; to acquire new information; to respond to the needs and demands of society and the workplace; and for personal fulfillment. Among these texts are fiction and nonfiction, classic and contemporary works.

2. Students read a wide range of literature from many periods in many genres to build an understanding of the many dimensions (e.g., philosophical, ethical, aesthetic) of human experience.

3. Students apply a wide range of strategies to comprehend, interpret, evaluate, and appreciate texts.

4. Students adjust their use of spoken, written, and visual language (e.g., conventions, style, vocabulary) to communicate effectively with a variety of audiences and for different purposes.

This activity fulfills the following standards established by the Mid-continent Research for Education and Learning (McREL). Language Arts: Writing

2. Uses the stylistic and rhetorical aspects of writing.

4. Gathers and uses information for research purposes.

Related Web Sites

Bob Hope’s quips hit absurdity of the human condition


So You Wanna Do Stand-up Comedy?

Comedians USA

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Student Activity


Mark Twain. c. 1884.

Mark Twain, c. 1884
Courtesy of The Mark Twain Papers, Bancroft Library

“Whatever you have lived, you can write – & by hard work & a genuine apprenticeship, you can learn to write well; but what you have not lived you cannot write, you can only pretend to write it...”

– Mark Twain

Samuel Clemens, who came to be known as Mark Twain, was a natural-born storyteller who was the first writer to recognize that art could be created out of the American language. Through his use of carefully chosen words and his sharply honed humor, he dealt head-on with controversial issues that others were afraid to confront.

Part A. In the film Mark Twain, Samuel Clemens is described as “an enormous noticer.” Much of what he noticed as a boy growing up in the small Mississippi River town of Hannibal, Missouri, found its way into his writings in books such as The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. He was always noticing whether people had their hands in their pockets or not, how they dressed, walked, spoke or presented themselves to others. Consider this passage from the first chapter of Tom Sawyer, for example:

A stranger was before him – boy a shade larger than himself... This boy was well-dressed, too well-dressed on a week-day.
This was simply astounding. His cap was a dainty thing, his close-buttoned blue cloth roundabout was new and natty, and so were his pantaloons. He had shoes on–nd it was only Friday. He even wore a necktie, a bright bit of ribbon. He had a citified air about him that ate into Tom’s vitals.

Let’s find out how much you notice on a typical day. Today, pay special attention to all the details, large and small, of your route home from school, of places, buildings and people. Then make a list of what you saw. Try to recall as much detail as you can.

All good humorists are “enormous noticers.” Jerry Seinfeld, Jay Leno and David Letterman take current events and personalities and, through keen observation and wit, help us discover truths about ourselves and our society. Like Twain, they find the inspiration for humor in the little details of real-life situations that aren’t necessarily intended to be funny.

First, on a separate sheet of paper, write a short passage that changes some of the details of what you noticed on your route home into something humorous. Now, think about a monologue or episode of your favorite comedy show that relies on the “noticing” of details and the sparing use of facts. Describe it to your classmates.

Part B. Under the pen name of Mark Twain, Clemens found the inspiration for humor in the everyday and in real-life situations that weren’t intended to be humorous:

When he was a young reporter in Virginia City, Nevada, Twain encountered a stranger at a billiard parlor who proposed a game for half a dollar – even offered to play left-handed after watching Twain warm up. “I determined,” Twain wrote later, “to teach him a lesson.” But the stranger won the first shot, cleared the table, took Twain’s money, “and all I got was the opportunity to chalk my cue.”

“If you can play like that with your left hand,” Twain said, “I’d like to see you play with your right.”

“I can’t,” the stranger answered. “I’m left-handed.”

“Humor must not professedly teach, and it must not professedly preach, but it must do both if it would live forever.”

– Mark Twain

One time, after burglars had broken into his house and stolen the silverware, Clemens scribbled out and illustrated the following notice and tacked it to the front door:


To the Next Burglar

There is nothing but plated ware in this house now and henceforth. You will find it in that brass thing in the dining-room over in the corner by the basket of kittens.

If you want the basket put the kittens in the brass thing. Do not make a noise – it disturbs the family...

Please close the door when you go away!

Very truly yours,

S. L. Clemens

Find some current examples of articles or columns in newspapers or magazines or from the Internet that contain humor that appeals to you. Bring your examples to class and explain what it is about them that appeals to you – the topic, the writing style, the use of language, etc. Analyze the type of humor you find. Here are some types to consider:

Farce – an exaggerated, broadly improbable scenario using characters for humorous effect

Parody – an imitation of someone else’s style for comic effect

Satire – the use of ridicule or sarcasm to expose or attack vices or follies

Irony – a play on words in which the intended meaning of the words used is directly opposite their usual sense (i.e., calling a stupid plan “clever”)

Then choose a passage from Twain’s writing and analyze the type of humor he used. How different or similar are the types of humor?

Download a .pdf Student Handout for Activity 1: A Writer’s Inspiration
Adobe Acrobat Required

This activity was created by YMI (Youth Media International) with generous support from General Motors.

GM logoGeneral Motors is proud to provide this educational outreach program devoted to the film presentation of Mark Twain. With this program, General Motors continues its long-standing commitment to make classroom learning an integral part of all General Motors PBS presentations.