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Mark Twain Studies: Huck Finn AP Writing, 4 Pages, Can Be Used Multiple Times

Mark Twain Studies: Huck Finn AP Writing, 4 Pages, Can Be Used Multiple Times
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47 KB|4 pages
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Your purchase contains a painstakingly delineated summary of Mark Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn into more than sixty separate episodes, beginning to end, with page references that will probably need adjustments, depending upon the edition you're using. If you wish, you can assign the work several times during your study of the novel and require attention to selected episodes. Included as part of the instructions is a careful reading of Keith Neilson's "Afterword." (It provides an example for students to emulate. Neilson's work is quite well known, and it appears in a number of printings. If it is not available, that requirement can be eliminated, of course.) This product contains a full description of the work to be done along with extensive elaboration on the essentials of interpretive reading and writing.

It opens with a writing prompt on the Sherburn/Boggs/Circus episode from the novel, along with my example of an acceptable response.

You get that as your preview download. It actually provides an educationally sound assignment all by itself. I usually gave my students the writing prompt at the beginning of a class and collected their essays at the end of the period. The next day, I showed them my response to the same prompt, and we discussed it before I distributed the rest of the information.

As most AP instructors know, every school must submit a thorough syllabus explaining the program as taught at their schools. The following passage is from the syllabus I authored for the AP English Language and Composition program at our school in 2007:

One of [our AP students'] largest problems has to do with insufficient awareness of rhetoric and lack of vocabulary to address it. A prepared packet is handed out with explanations of rhetorical terminology and concepts. We review it carefully. Students are allowed to use the packet for the first semester, during which time they read and annotate a wide range of [fiction and] non-fiction selections in class and write in response to prompts modeled after essay writing tasks from AP exams. (“Describe major features of the language used ... ,” “Write an essay that defends, qualifies, or challenges the author's ideas ... ,” “Identify the purpose of the author's remarks and analyze how [he or she] uses the resources of language ... ,” “Analyze how the author uses rhetorical strategies and stylistic devices to convey ... .”)

I guess that passage is pretty much "stock" (as they say in the automotive industry) in any of the syllabi assembled to please the Advanced Placement authorities at the national and regional levels. They want us to appreciate how extremely difficult it is to impress students with the seriousness and complexities of scholarly literary criticism. As a veteran of some years' experience teaching AP kids, I found it useful and wise to let them know, in the syllabus, that I did indeed appreciate that fact, but I also knew by then that AP writing tasks, clearly defined and assigned in strict separation from each other, really don't teach kids very much. (I didn't put that remark into my syllabus, of course.)

When I first started with AP kids I tried mimicking AP terminology in my writing prompts. After a year or two, I felt as though I was always "painting myself into corners," so to speak. I found it particularly difficult to explain to kids why it's important to do things a certain way. For example, it seemed to take a whole school year just to get across how juvenile space fillers sound:

There are many examples of rhetorical devices in this episode.
There are many examples of irony in this episode.

I would harp on the same points, over and over: Don't waste words. Explain the meaning of the selection. Speak from your heart; tell what the author's work does to you, and express that as the author's intent toward all his readers. Allow your discussion of rhetorical devices to enter the discussion naturally.

Ha! Easier said than done! Kids didn't get it. I had to write and provide examples myself. Then at least they sensed the gulf between their attempts to interpret literature and clear examples of what was expected of them.

It took me a couple of years to come to this realization: It's best, at least in the beginning, not to overemphasize the need to "compare/contrast" on one assignment and "defend/challenge/qualify" on a different occasion. Most importantly, don't make them elucidate too much on rhetoric.

We must emphasize the consistencies! Always get them reading, appreciating, and thinking about a given story/poem/essay. Always have them react to it first. Always make them express what the literature means personally to them. Then have them translate it into what it must mean to all readers.

Before pointing out the writer's techniques, I also found it useful to teach kids to speculate on the author's overall philosophical view of the world. I offer my favorite method in this assignment, the use of a "philosophical continuum." It will be self-explanatory. You can take it or leave it, for whatever it's worth to you. After you've drawn them this far, address the "special" AP prompts. But remind them that these are always secondary to the main task. Here it is, kids:

Every single time out of the blocks, it will be your job to enlighten your audience (and ultimately your AP test judging audience) about the author's message. While demonstrating familiarity with the special terminology that defines how authors accomplish their purposes, you must present that other most essential ingredient: understanding.

Just my opinion: our concern with the use of terminology is secondary. I'm not suggesting that it is foolish. A student's ability to demonstrate an awareness of how authors communicate is important, but frankly, the issue of whether that is the ultimate and/or most vital goal of the whole matter is debatable; it is certainly not the hardest part of this process, and, in my humble opinion, we can't waste too much time on it.

Yes, kids must practice "explaining rhetorical devices," "defending/challenging/qualifying," and "comparing/contrasting." We have little choice in the matter. That's the way the tests are written. Eventually, you too will have to parse the directives along those lines. But as instructors, we must impress students primarily with this task: delve into literature, experience it, and eloquently express an understanding.

Gene Wohlsdorf

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License.

Total Pages
4 pages
Answer Key
Teaching Duration
1 Week
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