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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

Powerful Memories, Powerful Words

Mark Twain and his friend John Lewis, 1903.

Twain with friend John Lewis, 1903
Courtesy Library of Congress

Objective: Students identify and describe the influence slavery had on Mark Twain’s writing, and then determine the status of race relations and ethnic differences in their lives.

Activity Description

In Part A, students will focus on the powerful impact Twain’s ability to tell a story in the vernacular had on his audience. Explain that Twain employed the way Mary Ann Cord used words – her inflections, pauses and unique patterns of speech – to frame her story in a clear and compelling manner. Ask one of your students to read her words aloud, then have all your students try their own hands at vernacular storytelling. (Note: Be sure that students ask permission to tape-record their interview subjects.) In Part B, have students also consider other examples of Twain’s vernacular storytelling through his pictures of race relations and the lives of African Americans in his time. After they have completed their media-watch comparison, your more mature students might frame their own thoughts about how their lives might be different if they were of a different race.

Extended Activity

Ask students why they think Twain’s work was (and still is) so influential. Explain that when Huckleberry Finn was first published, it was banned from many libraries because of its rough language and poor grammar, and because it celebrated the life of a youngster who lived by his own rules. It remains controversial in some parts of this country today because of its portrayal of blacks. Do your students think the controversy that surrounds the language Twain uses – especially the liberal use of the word “nigger” in Huckleberry Finn – detracts from the impact of his work? Do they believe the controversy is warranted? You might also discuss other famous works that have been banned, such as To Kill a Mockingbird, etc.

National Standards

This activity fulfills the following standard 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.

This activity fulfills the following standard established by the Mid-continent Research for Education and Learning (McREL).

Language Arts: Listening and Speaking

8. Uses listening and speaking strategies for different purposes.

United States History: Era 4 - Expansion and Reform (1801-1861)

10. Understands how the industrial revolution, increasing immigration, the rapid expansion of slavery, and the westward movement changed American lives and led to regional tensions

Related Web Sites

The Legend of Mark Twain

Understanding Adventures of Huckleberry Finn – Timeline

Resources on Huckleberry Finn

Encyclopedia of USA History

Race Relations News

Culture Shock

Student Activity


Mark Twain at the writing desk in his study at Quarry Farm in Elmira, NY, 1874

Mark Twain in his study at Quarry Farm in Elmira, NY, 1874
Courtesy Elmira College, The Center for Mark Twain Studies

“... I have no race prejudices, and I think I have no color prejudices nor caste prejudices nor creed prejudices. Indeed I know it... All that I care to know is that a man is a human being – that is enough for me...”

– Mark Twain

Black people and black voices were part of Sam Clemens’ life from the beginning. Every summer as a child Sam spent several weeks on his uncle’s farm, where an old slave called “Uncle Daniel” thrilled the youngsters with ghost stories. One of his most lasting childhood memories was not so pleasant, however. It was of a dozen men and women, chained together, waiting to be shipped down-river to the slave market. “They had,” he said, “the saddest faces I ever saw.

Part A. While Twain grew more successful and prosperous, he never forgot those childhood memories. He understood slavery to be cruel and unjust – a picture he wanted to portray in his most controversial book, Huckleberry Finn.

In the film Mark Twain, we meet Mary Ann Cord, the former slave whose story so moved Twain that, changing her name to “Aunt Rachel,” he committed her words to paper in The Atlantic Monthly in “A True Story, Repeated Word for Word as I Heard It.

“Aunt Rachel”... was our servant, and colored... She was sixty years old ... a cheerful, hearty soul, and it was no more trouble for her to laugh than for a bird to sing... [I asked her:] “Aunt Rachel, how is that you have lived sixty years without trouble?”

[She said,] ...“Misto Clemens, is you in ‘arnest?... Has I had any trouble? Misto Clemens, I’s gwyne to tell you, den I leave it to you. I was bawn down amongst de slaves....

Born a slave in Virginia, Mary Ann Cord married and had seven children. In 1852, her heart was broken when her family was sold away from her at auction. She lost touch with all of them. Years later, during the Civil War, she was living in North Carolina when Union officers occupied her owner’s plantation. A black regiment arrived to guard the house. Cord continued her story:

I was a stooping down by de stove ... an’ I’d jist got de pan ‘o hot biscuits in my han’ an was ‘bout to raise up when I see a black face comin’ aroun’ under mine an de eyes a-lookin’ up into mine ... an I jist stopped right dah an’ never budged! Jist gazed and gazed, ... an de pan begin to tremble, an’ all of a sudden I knowed!...“Boy!” I says, “if you ain’t my Henry, what is you doin’ wid dis welt on yo wris’ an’ dat sky-ar on yo’ forehead? De Lord God ob be praise, I got my own ag’in!”

Oh, no, Mister Clemens, I hain’t had no trouble. An’ no joy!

Hearing the old woman talk reminded Twain not only of the horrors of slavery, but also of the power of vernacular storytelling. Twain channeled that power in Huckleberry Finn as he had Jim, the runaway slave, tell his story in his own words.

Ask someone whose background and life have been quite different from yours – perhaps a World War II veteran, a person from a different part of the country, or a recent immigrant – to describe a significant experience in his or her life. Tape-record their story and then put in writing their words exactly as they used them – including inflections, pauses and special phrases. Don’t “correct” their language. Now weave this into a short story to share with your classmates.


Mark Twain's handwritten title page for Huckelberry Finn.

Twain’s handwritten title page for The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
Courtesy Buffalo and Erie County Library

Part B. Tom Sawyer was the best loved of all of Mark Twain’s books – “a celebration of small-town boyhood in which the hero solves a murder mystery, manages to eavesdrop on his own funeral, and tricks his friends into painting his fences.” Tom Sawyer gives us a very “whitewashed” version of childhood. Huckleberry Finn – which has been debated, attacked and censored ever since its publication in 1885 – was something else entirely.

Written in dialect like the story of Mary Ann Cord, Huckleberry Finn’s power lies in the characters’ own “voices.” As the story begins, Huck says:

You don’t know about me, without you have read a book by the name of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, but that ain’t no matter. That book was made by Mr. Mark Twain, and he told the truth, mainly...

Set before the Civil War, it is the story of two runaways – a white boy, Tom’s friend Huckleberry Finn – who is fleeing civilization – and a black man, Jim, who is running away from slavery. Huck’s experiences with Jim make him question everything he has been taught about black people and slavery, about right and wrong, good and evil.

When Huck awakens to hear Jim crying for his lost children, he realizes for the first time that “I guess Jim misses his family the way white folk’d do their’n.” Later, Huck feels he has been wrong to help Jim escape and writes a letter to Jim’s owner telling him where his fleeing property can be found. But before mailing it he hesitates, remembering Jim’s kindness on their trip on the river and how Jim had said that Huck was the best friend he’d ever had in the world, “and the only one he’s got now...”

Huck continues:

... and then I happened to look around and see that paper.

I took it up, and held it in my hand. I was a-trembling because I’d got to decide, forever, betwixt two things, and I knowed it. I studied a minute, sort of holding my breath, and then says to myself:

“All right then, I’ll go to hell” – and tore it up.

Do you think conditions have changed for the better? Conduct a week-long media watch to find TV news stories and newspaper articles about current race relations. Pick one issue, research how relevant it was in Twain’s day and, if it was, how it was treated in the media and literature then. Write your findings on a separate sheet of paper.

Download a .pdf Student Handout for Activity 4: Powerful Memories, Powerful Words
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.