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Sean Russell <[log in to unmask]>
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Mark Twain Forum <[log in to unmask]>
Sat, 27 Oct 2012 13:56:53 -0700
text/plain (135 lines)
What I remember from my student days, if I may butt in here, is that the teachers who were passionate about their subject and liked and respected students, were always able to get their students excited about the subject matter.

I read Tom Sawyer when I was nine or ten and Huck Finn when I was eleven or twelve - I never studied them in school but I did have an elementary school teacher who was taking night classes and he was studying Huck Finn.  He was keen on the book and what he was learning and this rubbed off on his students.  I didn't really begin to understand Adventures of Huckleberry Finn until I was twenty and I have read it many many times over the years.

Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn were the books that made me decide to become a writer.  Twenty-some years and dozen novels into this career I still feel I owe Mark Twain a massive debt. (You can find my books in North America under the name S. Thomas Russell.  They're published by Putnam/Penguin and a couple of recent books made the London Times Bestseller list).  I don't think studying Twain's books in school could have ruined them - they are just too good.

My son read Huck Finn and then Tom Sawyer a couple of years ago - he would have been twelve.  After hearing me go on and on about Huck and Tom he borrowed copies out of my study and read them.  He liked Huck Finn far more than Tom Sawyer .  He assures me, though, that kids don't read them anymore - too bad.  I wish my love of Shakespeare would inspire him to read the plays but I think he's at that point in his life where he needs to develop interests of his own.

Excuse the ramble.  Let me just finish by saying that teachers who love their subject can change lives.  I come from a very working class family.  My father had a grade 8 education and my mother dropped out of school at 15.  They were honest, hard working people but culture did not enter our house.  A few high school teachers and friends I made at that time (and in some cases their families) introduced me to the arts.  I owe them too.

Sean Russell  


From: Sharon McCoy 
Sent: Saturday, October 27, 2012 10:51 AM
To: [log in to unmask] 
Subject: Re: Huck on Google

I think that it would depend, as always, on how you as a teacher felt about it 
and why you were teaching it.  This is true, really, of any text.

If you were teaching _Huck Finn_ because you feel that it is a book pertinent to 
kids this age, a book that helps them understand how alone and awkward and 
scared we all feel at that age, and how that can be compounded by circumstance 
or abuse; if you were teaching the novel because it demonstrates ways of using 
humor and wits to deal with tense situations; if you were teaching it because 
its protagonist has to make a lot of tough choices, sees a lot of violence, and 
is taught things that go against his heart; if you are teaching the book because 
it takes on the hidden horror of the homeless--that many of them are children 
(and some right in your classroom); if you are teaching the book because while 
things have changed, unfortunately, they have not changed enough . . . then your 
students would be as interested in the book as you are.

I know because my son is in sixth grade and has been reading the novel, on his 
own.  He has listened to me talk about it for years, and on long road trips we 
have listened to most of it on tape, stopping the tape often to talk about the 
disturbing bits . . . and many of the bits that disturbed him had nothing to do 
with race, though those disturbed him, too, but not always in the way you might 

But if you teach a book -- any book -- as a "classic" and with ponderous 
reverence, of course they're going to look for a way out of reading it.  Or if 
you teach a book that raises real issues but refuse to discuss them honestly, of 
course they are going to look for a way out of reading it.

I teach the book at the college level, and my evaluations show that sometimes 
students considered dropping the course rather than read _Huck Finn_ again (they 
feel the same about Faulkner, and about poetry), but usually, by the end of the 
course, they're telling me how glad they are that they stayed in -- and often, 
they surprise themselves by choosing to write about the very texts they thought 
they hated.  

Sorry for the long meditation.  But today I am reading and commenting on essays 
about Sherman Alexie's _Flight_ (a book most of them expected to hate, for some 
reason -- as though I would assign a book I didn't love), and I am awed by their 
earnestness and passion . . . and have to remind myself that my purpose is to 
help them write better and develop their arguments more deeply, and not just 
lose myself in the joy of youthful enthusiasm.


From: Andrew Dickson <[log in to unmask]>
To: [log in to unmask]
Sent: Sat, October 27, 2012 7:42:20 AM
Subject: Re: Huck on Google

I know this is a book that's given to Junior High School students to
read, but because of this, it has this horrible stigma to it.  So many
people from multiple generations associate Huckleberry Finn with
"boring" because they were forced to read it in school.  I feel like
Mark Twain would be furious if he knew how his once-counter-cultural
book, a book that provided an outlet (among other things) for kids who
are like Huck Finn to feel some catharsis, is now punishing those very
same kids.  Or has been for decades, I should say.

I'm so thankful I wasn't ever assigned to read this book (or perhaps I
was, but I just was so used to not reading in school that I didn't
remember it) in High School.

Google Alerts about the kids saying how they don't want to read it,
yes some of it is laziness, but if this were a book that they wanted
to read, they'd read it.  Reading should never be forced -- every time
it is, you never learn anything.  You just feel resentment, page after
page.  Doesn't matter how profound the work is.

I don't think more policing of students is going to get kids
interested in reading this book.  Honestly, I don't think anything
ever will -- the stigma runs too deep.  I feel bad though for the
punishments that are going to come to these kids.  I read the book for
the first time over the summer (of this year, at 22) and I feel like
it was the perfect time for me to read it.  Not a minute before or
after.  Obviously that's subjective, but I -cannot- imagine 7th
graders getting into the poetry of this book.  I imagine most will
think "Oh yeah, that book that's supposed to teach us that racism=bad"


On Fri, Oct 26, 2012 at 3:16 PM, Sam Sackett <[log in to unmask]> wrote:
> There's a service on Google called Google Alerts.  It gives you what appear=
> s on the Internet -- news, blogs, and web -- about the subject you choose. =
>  I signed up for it to get alerts about Huckleberry Finn, hoping I'd see an=
> y comments about my Huckleberry Finn Grows Up.  I haven't seen any yet.
> But what I have seen is that almost every day some student is writing in sa=
> ying he's been given a class assignment about Adventures of Huckleberry Fin=
> n and wants somebody to do his homework for him; and/or some person or comp=
> any is offering to provide an essay about Twain's classic.
> I think if I were teaching Huckleberry Finn, I'd want to subscribe to this =
> Google service to see what my students were doing; in fact, if I were teach=
> ing any book or books at all, I'd want to get Google Alerts on that book or=
>  those books.  Keeping students honest is a tough job, and this would help.
> Sam Sackett