Educational Print and Outreach Department. Huck Finn Coursepack: Includes video documentary: Born to Trouble: Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, 90 minutes; Huck Finn in Context: A Teaching Guide, 40 pp., 8-1/2" x 11", and companion readings approved for classroom use, 259 pp., 8-1/2" x 11". WGBH Educational Foundation, 2000. $8.75 plus $4.75 shipping and handling (total: $13.50). No ISBN.

The following review appeared 13 June 2000 on the Mark Twain Forum.

Copyright © 2000 Mark Twain Forum
This review may not be published or redistributed in any medium without permission.

Reviewed by:

David Barber <>
University of Idaho

Special Item #HFIN111
Huck Finn Coursepack
PBS Video
1320 Braddock Place
Alexandria, VA 22314
(800) 344-3337

This "coursepack"--video documentary, teaching guide, and companion readings--is aimed primarily at high-school teachers and students, but any teacher of Huckleberry Finn at any level can profit from purchasing it, as can any teacher who deals with American slavery or African American history in general. Although WGBH gave permission to those who taped the documentary, when it was first aired January 26, 2000, to show it in classrooms for one year, it will soon be necessary to own the documentary in order to show it legally. And the bonuses are worth even more than the central item. The teaching guide is full of useful information and ideas, and the set of companion readings, approved for reproduction for classroomuse [no worries about publishers' permissions and fees], include many valuable items for teaching Huck and American race relations generally.

The Enid, Oklahoma, school board paid a great compliment, sight unseen, to the documentary Huck Finn: Born to Trouble when in early January of this year it tabled its decision on retaining or removing Twain's novel from its high-school curriculum, until after the film aired on January 26. Subsequently they retained the book and, according to Jim Zwick, "voted to provide special training on the novel to teachers and to examine other books that might be added to the curriculum to make it more culturally diverse." [1]

Evidently the documentary and the teaching guide, which was also available at the time, influenced the board in a constructive way. The documentary explores the racial controversies regarding Twain's novel and presents the conflict between school authorities in Tempe, Arizona, and Kathy Monteiro, a parent who sued to have the book removed from her daughter's high school.

It describes a case that ended in frustration and community division. The teaching guide, on the other hand, describes how to do it right, how to handle a challenge to the school curriculum: the example of Cherry Hill, New Jersey, where African American parents' challenges to teaching Huck to high-school students generated a constructive dialogue involving the entire community.

Although the documentary's evident impact in the Enid case is a genuine success story, for teachers and students it is the least successful and useful of the three items in the package because it is flawed in two major ways: format and lack of balance. In the ever-more-tiresome style of talking heads superimposed on frozen images, the documentary piles up sound-bites: highly discussible observations which normally are NOT then subjected to discussion. If there is an articulated response, it may come twenty minutes later (or earlier) in someone else's uncontested observation.

Occasionally a sequence will develop a single issue, the most successful being the students' observations, in Nancy Methelis's class at the Boston Latin School, on the use of the word "nigger." But even in this sequence, the discussants are not talking to each other; they don't know what the others have said and so their comments do not build on each other.

Another difficulty of format, also a matter of balance, involves the film's interweaving of four different plot lines: (1) the events of the novel, (2) its writing/publication/reception history, (3) Twain's biography, and (4) the protest at McClintock High School in Tempe by Kathy Monteiro and her daughter. Ever-present to interpret the first three plots are the documentary's scholarly guns: Shelley Fisher Fishkin, Jocelyn Chadwick-Joshua, David Bradley, and James Miller. Like Ms. Methelis's children, they are not talking to each other, though since they all take similar positions in favor of teaching Huck, perhaps it doesn't matter much. (James Miller is the most moderate voice, but when in a couple of places he begins to articulate what looks like a dissenting view, he gets cut off. Discussing the book's Phelps farm sequence, he says, "The ending is complicated." Now what scholar would stop at such a sentence? But within half a second we are zoomed over to David Bradley as he unfolds HIS view of the ending. One wonders about the editor's sense of the issues and what unused material lies on the electronic cutting room floor.)

So Twain and Huck-the-character and Huck-the-novel all have their sympathetic interpreters. But who is interpreting Kathy Monteiro, the only significant voice for the opposition? She is paired against both the scholars and against Mark Twain himself. It's hideously unfair. Where is the scholar/educator to develop her complaints about the classroom use of "nigger," or her questions about the preparation of the teachers who teach Huck? Where is the legal expert to evaluate the claims of the First Amendment vs. the Fourteenth Amendment in this case?

It's not that the filmmakers are unsympathetic to Monteiro. On the contrary, she emerges as the heroine of the piece, the one who feels the pain and carries the burden, while the visiting scholars are merely sideline observers. The problem is simply that she needs help to articulate her case! At some point the makers of the documentary appear to have realized this, and they ran out--literally, it seems, into the streets, where these scenes are shot--to interview two vehement critics of Huck: Julius Lester and John Wallace. Each of these got to utter--out in the street, on a cold day--one sentence. (No time and no soft lighting in elegant rooms for the bad guys!) Here is a rough breakdown of the amount of talk time enjoyed by the various commentators:

Shelley Fisher Fishkin - 8 minutes; Jocelyn Chadwick-Joshua 6 minutes; David Bradley - 9 minutes; James Miller - 5 minutes; Kathy Monteiro - 10 minutes; Julius Lester - 7 seconds; John Wallace - 11 seconds.

Nevertheless, a teacher willing to spend the time to isolate useful segments of the documentary can get much that is stimulating and usable from it. More valuable is "Huck Finn in Context: A Teaching Guide"--though the two are best seen not as contrasting but as complementary. Set against the film's portrayal of the Tempe conflict, a portrayal which concludes with Kathy Monteiro in tears at the police station, is the experience at Cherry Hill, in which African American protests against the teaching of Huck were resolved constructively by the joint efforts of administrators, parents, students, and teachers. After telling the story of this community epic, the teaching guide lays out a revised version of the curriculum which teachers at Cherry Hill East High School, in consultation with professors fromVillanova University, developed. This curriculum has two main features.

First, it assumes a specific interpretation that puts Jim at the novel's center and sees him very positively, not weak or passive but heroic. In addition to his moral decency and his caring for Huck, Jim is a resister; students are led to see Jim's "'wearing a mask' . . . [as] a valid form of rebellion" (14) against slavery. The second feature of the Cherry Hill curriculum is the strong emphasis on historical context: American slavery, African American history, even African cultures before enslavement. Centralto this strategy is the pairing of Huck with a slave narrative; Frederick Douglass and Harriet Jacobs are recommended.

The Cherry Hill curriculum, as revised by the staff at WGBH, includes direct discussion of the "N-word," the element of stereotype in Jim's portrayal, Huck's character development, and the novel as satire. With a primary focus on high-school students, but including much that can enhance study atthe college level, the guide indicates how to use selections from the companion readings, articulates as many discussion questions as one could use, and gives long and inventive lists of activities for helping students respond to Twain's novel through discussing, writing, and acting out. The guide concludes with a highly usable bibliography of resources.

It is this inspirational Cherry Hill model that the educators and administrators in Enid were evidently following. In both cases the focus of the solution was to provide for students a cultural context within which they could understand Twain's novel so that the book's demonstrable power to hurt young readers would be nullified and its power to provide insight into American race relations would be amplified. The companion readings are valuable tools to this end. Though they are specifically companions to the Cherry Hill/WGBH curriculum that is detailed in the teaching guide, a teacher need not be following that curriculum to make good use of some or all of the readings, which can be divided into three basic types:




Coming as they do with full permission to reproduce, these are spectacular hands-on resources for classroom use.

One final note. The national NCTE convention last November in Denver included two powerful sessions organized by WGBH and several of those who were involved in the Cherry Hill controversy and developed its Huck Finn curriculum. These sessions effectively filled out the information in the teacher's guide and gave faces to its narrative. An equally impressive session at the convention, on censorship in general, was moderated by Judy Blume. I don't believe that Twain or Huck was ever mentioned, but at the end of the session Joan Berlin, executive director of National Coalition Against Censorship, read an excerpt from a recent court case which she found very encouraging, whereupon Judy Blume jumped up and exclaimed: "Yes, we should all have this! it should be on all our bulletin boards!"

And she's right! This was the ruling of the Ninth U. S. Circuit Court of Appeals on Kathy Monteiro's suit against the Tempe school district in October, 1998. [2 ]

This decision, mentioned but treated cursorily at the end of Huck Finn: Born to Trouble and in the teacher's guide (5), is another magnificent resource for any teacher or student who wants to examine censorship and the use of controversial materials in schools. Written by Justice Stephen Reinhardt, the opinion is a compassionate and (despite the legalese) eloquent attempt to balance the competing claims of the First and the Fourteenth Amendments. This court decision may be the most valuable item not included in the companion readings or the teaching guide's resource lists, and I highly recommend it for anyone interested in censorship issues.

[1] Mark Twain. 24 Apr. 2000.

[2] Monteiro v Tempe High 9715511. U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals. 19 Oct. 1998 [decision filed].