The following book review was written for the Mark Twain Forum by Hugh H.
Nogowski, John. _Teaching Huckleberry Finn: Why and How to Present the
Controversial Classic in the High School Classroom_. Jefferson, NC:
McFarland & Company, 2018. Pp. 179. Paper, 5-7/8" x 8-3/4". $35.00. ISBN
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Reviewed for the Mark Twain Forum by:
Hugh H. Davis
CS Brown High School--STEM
Copyright (c) 2019 Mark Twain Forum. This review may not be published or
redistributed in any medium without permission.
On the May 26, 2019, installment of _CBS News Sunday Morning_, in a segment
called "On the River," Lee Cowan reported on Tim DeRoche's _The Ballad of
Huck and Miguel: A Novel_ (2018; Redtail Press, with illustrations by
Daniel Gonzalez), a rewrite of _Adventures of Huckleberry Finn_. Proclaimed
"a _Huck Finn_ for today," the novel was highlighted for its contemporary
reimagining of Clemens' classic. DeRoche explained that he sought to tell a
story true to the original novel while making the text relevant to and for
the twenty-first century (achieved most immediately by changing the Jim
character to an undocumented immigrant and moving action to Los Angeles).
In the segment, Cowan offers a context for the new work by discussing the
original novel, explaining some of its initial readers "didn't find it such
a charming tale" and declaring "it's now required reading in most schools."
This recent release and the recent news item show the continued relevance
of _Huckleberry Finn_, but Cowan's assertion that the book is required
reading shows a limited realization about the current state of Mark Twain
reading in schools.
In the current world of K-12 education, there are few texts that are
literally "required reading in most schools." Plenty of individual schools
require texts for their students, and some works, of course, appear more
often than others. However in today's world, it is no longer the norm to
expect that certain books be taught annually across the board at all
schools. And despite the label of "Common Core," students do not
necessarily navigate a common curricular path through the contemporary
classroom. The Common Core for English/Language Arts standards provides
would-be teachers with lists of "exemplar texts," and the use of these
texts varies depending on both teacher preference and text availability.
(The list of exemplar texts does promote _The Adventures of Tom Sawyer_ as
a text for middle school students, but its sequel does not appear on the
equivalent list for secondary student reading.)
The selection of texts in the modern high school classroom is influenced by
many factors. In the post-No Child Left Behind classroom, standardized
testing remains dominant, and various forms of testing and other school
requirements regularly cut time from teaching, making the choice of those
literary works that are to be studied critical. However, even after
factoring in the available time for a specific work to be taught, teachers
then have to consider the availability and condition of copies (never
guaranteed in an era with consistently limited resources, even with the
move to e-texts in many schools); the curricular unit plans that will be
used to teach those texts; the forms of assessment to be administered; and
how well received the selection will be by the students, parents, and
administration. With all of these factors at play, texts that are perceived
as difficult and challenging are often avoided, and those works which evoke
controversy are more and more regularly avoided by teachers as they plan
their lessons. All of these issues are brought forth in John Nogowski's
_Teaching Huckleberry Finn: Why and How to Present the Controversial
Classic in the High School Classroom_ (2018, McFarland). Nogowski recounts
his experiences, challenges, and triumphs teaching _Huck_ in a Florida high
school (although not necessarily in that order).
Readers who are removed from the high school experience may find some of
the account surprising, but Nogowski does a good job painting a thorough
version of his experience in a few pages. His book is a quick and appealing
read driven and enhanced by his clear passion for his work in the classroom
and for his students. Nogowski starts his preface by downplaying his own
scholarship, saying it "might not be termed academic mainstream" (1), but
this book is clearly meant to be a pedagogical approach to the use of the
novel and not an academic treatise. Readers should approach _Teaching
Huckleberry Finn_ as a case study in teaching practices. Given that
expectation, Nogowski is perhaps overstating the value he sees in teaching
Clemens's novel since those coming to this text likely are already
convinced it should be taught. But, as he reveals throughout his work,
there is still a need to argue for the teaching of this work with some
school stakeholders. Unfortunately, some school administrators see the
novel as too controversial a text to be worth the potential challenges. In
the final chapter of this book, Nogowski details meeting an administrative
roadblock after seven years of teaching Clemens's novel. Despite his
documented success reaching historically struggling students through Mark
Twain and finding that students connect with Huck's "street smarts" and
quick thinking (66), Nogowski was blocked from continuing to use Twain's
novel once he was assigned to teach an Advanced Placement course.
Apparently, he moved out from under the radar when he drew this teaching
assignment, and the administration, which should have been aware of his
teaching throughout the years, suddenly became wary of his text selection.
Clearly, Nogowski has both experience and expertise with _Adventures of
Huckleberry Finn_. However, his efforts to solidify his own ethos threaten
at times to overstep, as he declares that, despite the fact he cannot and
does not call himself a scholar, "I doubt there are many educators in
America who have taken Twain's work [. . .] into the places I have" (2).
There are a few moments early in the text which Nogowski seems to try a
balancing act, disclaiming his expertise as a scholar while proclaiming his
authority as a practical teacher. These attempts threaten to disrupt his
purpose because of distractions. Luckily once he gets into the discussion
of his actual teaching (which starts as early as the first true chapter),
they stop. Having been a sportswriter before entering teaching, Nogowski
knows how to write economically and engagingly, and his charming style
enhances the overall work. Although one might presume a limited and very
specific readership for a book of this type, any reader could pick up this
work and both follow and enjoy it.
Although Nogowski argues his unique nature as a teacher, having entered the
field in a late-career change, he actually matches more and more educators.
Many teachers today come to education without formal pedagogical training.
However, "Mr. Nogo," as his students call him, is different from many of
those teachers who are starting their education careers because of his
desire to teach a classic text. A generation of teachers is now entering
the classroom who have either limited or no experience with canonical
texts. These teachers include those making career changes (who might have
worked with the canon years before, but now come to the classroom with
limited personal experience and resources) and those who have English
degrees, but who have not been exposed to the traditional canon. Both of
these groups are beginning to outnumber those like Nogowski, who revel in
the power of canonical novels and who welcome the challenges those works
bring with them. Nogowski suggests he sees these merits because he is not a
traditional, trained teacher (9). While we are told in Chapter 22 of
_Adventures of Huckleberry Finn_ that "the average man don't like trouble
and danger," we find in the seven chapters of _Teaching Huckleberry Finn_
that Nogowski is not the average teacher, for he embraces the "trouble and
danger" of the novel's greatest topics. Mr. Nogo's book is a testament to
his determination to teach a challenging but rewarding text. He does not
shy away from any potential controversial topics and begins his discussion
with the novel's use of racist terms, calling for his students to consider
their own race (99% of his school is African-American) in the light of
twenty-first century events. He uses the readings to discuss religion,
domestic abuse, the need to code switch in different social situations, and
whether the educational system measures true intelligence. He also engages
his students in some of the literary debates surrounding the book,
including looking at Jane Smiley's "Say It Ain't So, Huck," and considering
the many debates about the novel's ending. He poses the question "did Twain
write the book for literary critics or for the masses?" (67) but then makes
his students critics themselves by helping them to find their voice through
the study of the novel.
_Teaching Huckleberry Finn_ justifies the first half of its subtitle,
with a well-reasoned and thorough discussion of why this "Controversial
Classic" belongs in the secondary classroom. Where the text seems to be
limited, however, is in the latter half of that subtitle, for it never
quite answers "How" Clemens's novel could and should be presented. This is
a brief book. Including the Preface and Introduction, the book proper is
eighty-one pages, in contrast to eighty-six pages of appendices. Appendix A
reprints two critical responses to the novel—George Saunders's "The United
States of Huck" and Maria Konnikova's "Is Huckleberry Finn's Ending Really
Lacking? Not If You're Talking Psychology"--which informs much of
Nogowski's approaches to his teaching. Appendix B then reprints six short
works by Mark Twain, including annotations and some questions Nogowski has
used with his students when reading these texts. The inclusion of the
questions begins to offer some pedagogical options for teaching Twain.
Perhaps the most noteworthy revelation concerning this collection is the
opportunity to see just how involved and thorough Nogowski's teaching unit
actually is. Time limitations often force teachers to move swiftly through
whatever text is being taught, and certainly classes often read only one
work by a given author. Nogowski has clearly developed a complete unit that
offers his students significant time with Mark Twain, and for that he most
definitely should be commended. The one shame here is that the questions
only offer a tease as to how he puts his entire unit together.
The contents of Appendix C come the closest to offering the reader a "How"
to teach _Huckleberry Finn_. This collection of "Additional Twain-Related
Assignments" offers seven options to the educator. (Further options are
available within some of the individual assignments, such as the use of
Bloom's Taxonomy, which offers six different ways to discuss the novel,
each corresponding to a different level.) However, that means only four
pages show how this successful teacher has taught the classic. One final
section (curiously, not labelled as Appendix D) offers "Suggested Reading
and Viewing," with ten titles Nogowski recommends (although three of these
are different editions of _Adventures of Huckleberry Finn_). Twainians will
already be familiar with all of these works. Yet teachers wrestling with
how to teach the novel, especially for those potentially new to it and the
works of Mark Twain, will benefit from these suggestions.
There are many ways to benefit from reading _Teaching Huckleberry Finn_.
One of its limitations is its brevity, as it seems to stop short of
fulfilling its stated purpose. Obviously, a teacher can pull from
Nogowski's recounting of his own teaching, adopting and adapting his
anecdotal plan, but the book does not offer a direct pedagogical approach
or a written curricular unit. However, the strengths springing from the
anecdotal review of Nogowski's classroom experience dominate the study.
Nogowski writes a compelling tale of the modern classroom and very
successfully demonstrates the continued cultural relevance for _Huckleberry
Finn_. While Tim DeRoche adapted the novel for his contemporary retelling,
Mr. Nogo helped his students find that relevance in a classic text.
ABOUT THE REVIEWER: Hugh H. Davis is an English teacher and the inaugural
librarian at CS Brown High School--STEM in Winton, NC, where he was Teacher
of the Year for the 2015-2016 school year. The former President of the
Popular Culture Association in the South, he often uses adaptations in his
teaching, and he wrote about his own experiences and history teaching
_Adventures of Huckleberry Finn_ in _Mark Twain Journal_. A
second-generation Twainian, he has written and presented about both
_Huckleberry Finn_ and _The Prince and the Pauper_.