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Reading & Writing in the Disciplines

Analyzing Complex Text

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Michelle Brenner’s students analyze an excerpt from Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by gathering evidence to support their point of view.

Teacher: Michelle Brenner

School: North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics, Durham, NC

Grade: 11

Discipline: ELA/History (American Studies)

Lesson Topic: Chapters 21–30 of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain

Lesson Month: November

Number of Students: 16

Other: This is a two-year school that focuses on the intensive study of science, mathematics, and technology

Featured Lesson’s Student Goals:

  • Content objectives – Recall plot points and their order to summarize the story through Chapter 30 of the book The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn; analyze author Mark Twain’s use of setting (river and land) in Chapters 1­­–30 of the book
  • Literacy/language objectives – Support analysis with evidence from the texts
  • Engagement/interaction objectives – Collaborate with peers

Standards Addressed:

Common Core State Standards for English Language Arts & Literacy in History/Social Studies, Science, and Technical Subjects

    Develop claim(s) and counterclaims fairly and thoroughly, supplying the most relevant data and evidence for each while pointing out the strengths and limitations of both claim(s) and counterclaims in a discipline-appropriate form that anticipates the audience’s knowledge level, concerns, values, and possible biases.

Instruction Details:

The Unit
The focus of this seven-day unit was The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, the Civil War, and Reconstruction. The unit was taught in November about one-third of the way into the curriculum year. The lesson on Chapters 21–30 occurred in the middle of the unit. Ms. Brenner team teaches this class with Kyle Hudson, American history/political science teacher.

Before the Video
This unit began with a discussion of realism and romanticism, which included an in-class group project on the development of photography and a comparison between the romantic paintings of war and realist photography. There was a lecture on the crisis of the 1850s, followed by an introduction to The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. The introduction focused on the “Notice” and “Explanatory” sections of the text and included a discussion of the “N-word” (using videos from PBS’s American Experience on Stephen Foster and the minstrel tradition and additional videos on YouTube, and an excerpt from a text by Randall Kennedy.) Ms. Brenner and her colleague Mr. Hudson also lectured on the military and cultural components of the Civil War.

As students read the novel, there was a class discussion on the internal and external conflicts that occur in Chapters 1–11. This was followed by an exploration of the word civilization and a comparison between how the characters in the book defined it versus how the students defined it. The discussion of Chapters 12–20 focused on the instances in which the character Huck confronts civilization and how society and the students define civilized and uncivilized behavior. To begin the focus on Chapters 21–30, Ms. Brenner posted a picture (online via the Padlet app) prior to class of how Huck sees the river to encourage students to start thinking symbolically about the associations we have with water and rivers. She also assigned homework questions about the reading (questions for understanding as well as questions that pushed students to begin to analyze the text on their own). These homework questions were submitted at the beginning of the lesson as a graded quiz.

During the Video
Ms. Brenner gave each student a notecard with an episode from the novel written on it. After determining the setting of their episode (on the shore or on the river), students divided themselves into homogenous groups of eight, based on these settings. Working together, each group arranged the episodes in order by taping the notecards to the chalkboard. (This helped students to remember the story’s plot.)

To encourage deeper analysis rather than a just a plot summary, Ms. Brenner asked each to student to think about his or her individual episode and why it was important to the story. She asked students to identify two quotations in the text that helped support their explanation. Students wrote these quotations on the chalkboard near their corresponding notecard.

In their groups, students discussed all of the events that happened in their setting—Ms. Brenner felt that by looking at the range of events, students would see the scope of changes that happened over time and get a more nuanced idea of the river and the shore beyond the general symbolism of freedom and civilization. Each group used a set of guiding questions to analyze their setting within the context of previous discussions about civilization and in direct comparison to the other settings:

  • What do the settings have in common?
  • How do they differ?
  • Does this change over time?
  • Is one setting more civilized than the other? According to what definition?

Each group then shared out to the full group what they thought the author was trying to communicate about civilization with each setting, supporting their ideas with evidence from the text.

At the end of the lesson, students wrote about what they learned and compared it to something that had been discussed earlier. Finally, as homework, students used the Padlet app to post their thoughts about their own episodes, which were later revised into short essays as part of a graded test.

After the Video
The following day, Ms. Brenner discussed with students how Huck developed and grew with each interaction that he had. Students were asked to compare what they learned in the lesson to what they knew of the transcendentalist movement. Ms. Brenner also engaged students in discussions about the use of satire in Twain’s novel and then about the Reconstruction era and African Americans’ quest for identity in post-slavery America (using Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. DuBois as examples). Throughout the rest of the unit, Ms. Brenner sought to highlight for students the complexity of the text. She led her class to make more connections between the novel and the romantics and transcendentalists. Students compared the trip that Huck took into nature to the one taken by Henry David Thoreau and also discussed Twain’s seeming distaste for romantic adventure literature.

Teacher Prep
Prior to this lesson, Ms. Brenner read the full text of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. She analyzed specific excerpts from the shore and river settings to make sure that they were not oversimplified when discussed in class.

Prior Knowledge
To participate in this lesson, students needed to have read Chapters 1–30 of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, have knowledge of the meaning of civilized and uncivilized, and know how to engage in analysis. Later in the unit, students needed to call on previous understandings of romanticism and transcendentalist views of nature in order to make comparisons to Twain’s novel.

Differentiated Instruction
Ms. Brenner incorporated kinesthetic learning and visual learning into this lesson by having students move around the classroom (to the chalk board to put notecards in order and to write quotations). She had students working together in groups (which she feels inspires more confidence in individual ideas, especially for English language learners).

Group Interaction
For this lesson, students collaborated in two groups of eight. Throughout the year, Ms. Brenner gave students opportunities to discuss ideas in pairs or groups before being asked to share in front of the large group. She feels that it gives students more confidence and creates a community in which everyone, including Ms. Brenner, is working and building knowledge together. To manage the small groups and keep students on task, Ms. Brenner called on pairs at random.

Resources and Tools


Formative Assessment
This lesson began with a homework quiz, which Ms. Brenner used to see what students understood about the pre-lesson reading assignment. While students worked in groups, Ms. Brenner walked around the classroom to observe who was on task and how students were responding to discussing the guiding questions. She asked questions of students to see who was pushing boundaries (rather than providing a simple answer) and whose thinking needed redirection.

Student Self-Assessment
Students knew whether they had ordered the episodes properly by flipping the notecards over to reveal a message. (Ms. Brenner used a simple phrase that was obvious to students—e.g., “We Love American Studies.”) Students were also able to compare their Padlet posts to those of their peers.

Summative Assessment
Ms. Brenner used students’ Padlet posts as an immediate way to assess their understanding of the lesson. Students wrote about what they learned that day and compared it to something they had previously studied. Later, students wrote essays about the novel that served as a summative assessment for the unit.

Impact of Assessment
Ms. Brenner used the assessments to modify the lesson as she went. Students connected the novel to what they knew about transcendentalists without her prompting, so she moved quickly through that idea and took the discussion in a different direction.

Ongoing Assessment
Throughout the year, Ms. Brenner had students do frequent writing assignments, called “written responses,” that called on the same skills required to write a longer essay but focused grading on smaller, more explicit content. For each paper written by students, she had a one-on-one conversation to give feedback. She also was sure to assess students daily both during and at the end of the lesson to determine understanding.

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Reading & Writing in the Disciplines


Produced by WGBH Educational Foundation. 2015.
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  • ISBN: 1-57680-906-4