Teaching Huckleberry Finn: Why and How to Present the Controversial Classic in the High School Classroom. By John Nogowski. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, 2018. Pp. 179. Paper, 5-7/8" x 8-3/4". $35.00. ISBN 978-1-4766-7428-5.

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The following review appeared 5 June 2019 on the Mark Twain Forum.

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Reviewed for the Mark Twain Forum by:
Hugh H. Davis

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's 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.