Teaching Huck Finn

By Ashley Opalka, 8th grade teacher

For years there has been controversy in school across the United States surrounding the teaching of Mark Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. In fact, it has recently been withdrawn from the upper school curriculum of another area independent school.

Since the book's publication in 1885, it has been condemned for a variety of reasons - originally because Twain featured a rebellious child as the protagonist. More recently, the book has been banned in schools for Twain's use of the n-word. Some schools continue to teach the book but in a revised edition that substitutes the word "slave" for the n-word.

We teach Huckleberry Finn, in Twain's original version, as part of the 8th grade language arts curriculum. Concurrently, students are learning in cultural studies class about the integration of Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas, in 1957.

Instead of explaining why we as a school feel it is important to teach and read the book –  in its original form – we thought we would share our 8th graders' opinions on the matter.

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn should be a central part in middle or high school curriculum for a few important reasons: The themes in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn are incredibly meaningful and powerful — not only friendship and family, but also hard-hitting themes like racism. Another reason is that it is a classic and a great time-period piece that has held up its themes and meaning through the test of time.” (Eli)

“I don’t think that Huckleberry Finn should be banned anywhere, to be honest. I feel like this is a great book to see a point of view from the past, and some of the things that happen in here you don’t get from your history books.” (Vanessa)

Huck Finn is too vital a piece of American literature to either be inadequately edited or worse yet discarded completely.” (Max)

“This book is not just good for the plot but also for the raw purity of the writing. Mark Twain meant for you to be hit when you read the n-word. You were supposed to be struck by the usage and how often is was said.” (Eitan)

“I do not support the guy that ‘cleaned up’ the language because the word slave doesn’t really make sense in some parts of the book. In some parts I feel that its better to use [the n-word] because that word carries more meaning that the word slave.” (RJ)

“The book is an American classic that should be taught to students of all backgrounds. It provides a message that racism can be overcome, as long as people put in the effort to overcome it…This book is an important reading that helps develop students into citizens that positively contribute to society. Students need to be taught the wrongs that America has done, to guarantee that history will not repeat itself.” (Ari)

“If you keep [the n-word] in [the book], it makes the book more powerful, but at the same time takes power away from the word. It does not have to be used as a derogatory racist slur, but as a moment to learn, and a moment to grow.” (Luke)

“This book is an important learning tool because it is such a perfectly preserved piece of history. Even though the story is fictional, it’s basically a first-hand account of the views and ideals of people from that time period. When you replace [the n-word] with slave, it devalues the book.” (Sophie)

“I do not think that it should be banned because being uncomfortable is important…having conversations like this with classrooms that are mixed race lets everyone give their opinion, and you are able to have healthy debates.“ (Sally)

“I do not support the guy that ‘cleaned up’ the language because the word slave doesn’t really make sense in some parts of the book. In some parts I feel that its better to use [the n-word] because that word carries more meaning that the word slave.” (RJ)

“I think that it isn’t right to shelter words from literature that come from context…After reading the book, every time I read the n-word, I understood why Twain used it. It always ‘made sense.’ It wouldn’t be the same story without it.” (Ethan)

“Some may argue that Adventures of Huckleberry Finn should be removed from the classrooms. I think that is preposterous. This book is one of the most famous novels in the time period. My friend Eli said that you can’t just get rid of a piece of history if you don’t like it. I fully believe in that statement.” (Abdullah)

“I think that The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is an amazing book that every kid should read at some point in their middle school or high school experience. Although it does have some strong content, it's important to recognize that this is how things used to be.” (Olivia)

“The use of the n-word in Huck Finn does not directly correlate to the story, but the n-word is an important word today, and in Huck Finn's time. Because of those factors, censoring the n-word would take away from the lesson, but not the story.” (Jonah)

“Many parents and schools do not want children reading this book because of the racism. I think that saying a child should not read a book because of this is like trying to tell that child that racism is not really a thing.” (Jules)

“I don’t think that The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn should be banned from classrooms. This is an important part of American history, which although uncomfortable needs to be talked about. The uncomfortableness of it is part of why it is so important to learn about, as outside of school these things might not be brought up at all, and we can’t afford to forget our past if we want to create a better future.” (Chris)

“I think Huckleberry Finn should not be banned from schools and classes. I think it should not because it’s a good story and it is something I think should be taught. If the problem is the use of the n-word, I think schools should have the same conversation as we did and see if the class would be fine hearing and saying the n-word. I think it should not be banned because in the book there are a lot of different writing styles that the book could help teach. Also it teaches some of the history of how it was in the South at the time and how people thought, no matter their backgrounds. It also teaches how people can change and evolve over time in different situations.” (Isaiah)

“Personally, I am against banning Huck Finn from school reading. Huck Finn is a classic book, riddled with hidden meanings and important moments that comment on America’s values in society in the nineteenth century. The discomfort that the book portrays [sic.] by using the ’N-word’ is an important issue that should be discussed in classes.” (Jude)

“After reading The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, I think that the book should not be banned from school libraries. Furthermore, I think it should be highly encouraged for teachers to do units on Huckleberry Finn. Because the book was made as a social commentary, it is an excellent window into Twain’s time period. For that reason, it would be much better for students to explore the book in a class unit, because in that setting they would explore the historical context of the book, more so than if they just read it alone in their free time.” (Noah)

“I think banning those books is what's keeping us from understanding and learning about what needs to be taught in a classroom. It’s important to read this book because not only is it a story about a boy and his adventures, it’s also a story that's telling the reader a slave’s point of view as a runaway, and how slaves aren’t all so bad, and should have been treated like normal people, because they were.” (T’Kaiyah)

Huckleberry Finn is a book that all children should read. I think that this is a middle school reading level book. There are sensitive topics, but slavery and segregation are sensitive topics too. This book may make some uncomfortable, but one, it’s teaching you about how things were, and two, it takes you on a journey while doing so.” (Blayre)

“I do not think that the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn should be banned from any classrooms or libraries because it represents and important time period in our country’s history, written by an author from a place where this history was most significant, the South. Banning the book will not prevent students from reading and learning about what went on before the civil war, but will deprive them of an amazing story with lots of characters that most likely represent real people and real values of society then. I do not see any reason that the book should be banned, because that does not erase the story and it does not erase the history.” (Ella)

“I think The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn has a place in the classroom. I think that banning it could be compared to banning a part of history. It is a powerful book that shows what people were like in that time period.  Also it shows how nonsensical slavery was.” (Susan)

For an interesting article about Huck Finn in the classroom, check this link:
Teaching Huck Finn Without Regret