Huck Finn Teacher's Guide
Culture Shock Creating the Curriculum

The Cherry Hill curriculum was developed primarily by English teachers Matthew Carr and Sandy Forchion. They worked throughout the summer of 1997 to address the issues raised by the challenge, using the resources suggested by the Villanova professors as well as their own sense of what would work best in a high school classroom.

For the most part, the concerns of the Cherry Hill parents echoed the concerns of many other African American parents who have questioned the book's place in the high school classroom: chiefly, the repeated use of the word "nigger," and the fear that the portrayal of blacks in the book is too stereotyped. "We tried to translate the parents' concerns into our curriculum," says Forchion. "We looked for the demeaning areas, places where students might find the portrayal of blacks laughable." They then examined the satirical nature of the portrayals, as well as supplying other African American views and voices that would give students a more complete understanding of the literary and cultural context.

Cherry Hill parents had two additional worries. First, they feared that, for most students in the district, the only time they would study African American history in depth would be through slavery. Danny Elmore explains, "We wanted kids to see blacks as a proud people before slavery -- as the kings and queens of Africa. If you lead up to Huck Finn with this, by the time you read it, you have enough background that the book doesn't slap you in the face." The Cherry Hill Curriculum suggests a lesson in Section II on African history and the Middle Passage. Due to space limitations, we have mentioned the topic but have not included a full lesson plan. Since history is important throughout the curriculum, there are many opportunities for interdisciplinary or team teaching.

The Cherry Hill parents were also concerned that Jim would never seem like a true hero to African American children because he does not resist slavery. As Sandy Forchion notes, "Jim is not heroic to black kids. In the end he is being controlled by a white boy. He is not a man, he is an emasculated man. They [the students] want to see Nat Turner." The curriculum is therefore structured so that students spend at least a day looking at forms of resistance and considering the idea that "wearing a mask," as Jim does, is a valid form of rebellion. They also read slave narratives such as Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass to understand other kinds of resistance.

Professor Lawrence Little points out that there are always two problems when teaching about slavery. The first is that "[African American] kids are ashamed this is their history. Jewish kids sometimes have the same problem: shame at being a victim. To counteract this, we try to give teachers strategies to work around these problems," such as looking more closely at the ways slaves resisted.

The second problem is the perception on the part of some African American students that, "'You're white, you can't tell me anything about this.'" Teachers might be understandably hesitant to take on a curriculum that begins with lessons on the word "nigger" and considers racism in general, so Section I of the curriculum offers effective ways of approaching this issue.

Although the issues and sensitivities regarding the book may change depending on the demographics of the class (and who is teaching it), it's important that all students -- whether in a racially mixed or homogeneous classroom -- are provided with the kind of curriculum that will help them see the book in a larger context.

Using the Huck Finn in Context Curriculum

WGBH's adaptation of the Cherry Hill curriculum uses the same structure and most of the same readings. We have included additional discussion questions, activities, and readings. We felt that some of the topics in the original curriculum, such as the culture of West Africa or the role of religion and superstition, were too complex to adequately present in this format. We have mentioned these within the appropriate sections as suggestions for further development. You can also use the extensive bibliography and lists of Web links and organizations to enhance your lesson plans.

Watching the film Born to Trouble: Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is an ideal way to engage students in the book and the controversy. You may want to show the film in its entirety during Section I or you may want to select portions of it to show throughout the entire Huck Finn unit. The detailed index to the film will help you plan segments for viewing. (Click here for information on the Huck Finn Coursepack, which contains a complete set of companion readings, plus the Born to Trouble video.) As you would with any film, be sure to preview it before you use it.

You may also want to use the PBS film series Africans in America in conjunction with the Huck Finn in Context curriculum, especially during Sections I and II. This four-part series traces the history of slavery in America and explores many of the themes and topics discussed in these two sections, such as African heritage, stereotypes, resistance and rebellion, and the historical roots of racism. The Africans in America Web site also contains valuable primary sources and lessons.

Next: Huck Finn in Context: The Curriculum

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