Going to School, Then and Now: Education in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and To Kill a Mockingbird

by Carla Nordstrom

 

Overview

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain and To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee are both written in the voices of children. While each book gives and unabashed commentary of the social mores of the time and place where it is set, students can also learn about attitudes toward education during these periods. Examining primary documents will also show was schools of the times offered their students.

Background

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain is the story of a fourteen-year-old boy from Missouri who is dissatisfied with his life and sets out on a journey along the Mississippi River. He teams up with a runaway slave named Jim, and the two of them travel south on a raft. The novel is set during the Antebellum period. Huck and Jim meet many different people as they float along the river; some are people of good will, while others are not so nice. Through the people Huck and Jim meet and the adventures they experience, the reader learns about the attitudes, beliefs, strengths, and weaknesses of people who lived at a time when slavery was practiced. Twain tells Huck's story in the vernacular and from the point of view of a country boy who lives by his wits and charms.

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee is set in 1930s Alabama. This story is narrated by Scout Finch, whose account begins the summer before she enters first grade. As Scout tells about her small town and the people who live there, it becomes clear that there are deep racial and class tensions within this community. These tensions erupt when a poor white woman accuses a black man of raping her.

Both novels explore the attitudes and prejudices of the people within them. Because the stories are told by children, their commentary and criticism of society is less guarded than it might be had adult characters narrated these stories. Both Huck's and Scout's fathers have strong opinions about the value of education. Huck’s Pa demands that he stop going to school because, in his family, there is no need for knowing how to read. Scout's father Finch spends most of his time at home reading, and as a young child, Scout picks up reading on her own, to the frustration of her first grade teacher.

The idea of compulsory education in the United States is attributed to Thomas Jefferson. In the United States the responsibility of providing education was originally shouldered by individual states. During the nineteenth century, schools systems were set up to meet the needs of a particular state, whether the purpose was to educate children from rural communities or to socialize immigrant children. It wasn’t until 1918 that all children were required to attend primary school up to the eighth grade. During Huck’s time schooling was offered only to boys of means. By the time Scout went to school, education was compulsory, but, as the second chapter of To Kill a Mockingbird makes clear, many children of limited means did not attend regularly. Both Huck's and Scout's schools would have been racially segregated.

Materials

Essential Question

  • What can we learn from novels about attitudes towards education and schools in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries?

Motivation

Ask the students to jot down what they think a parent or adult family member would say if they were asked whether it is important to learn how to read and go to school. Have the students share their thoughts and record their ideas on the chart paper.

Objectives

  • Students will read and discuss selections from The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and To Kill a Mockingbird.
  • Students will view and analyze pictures and images that relate to schools and education during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.
  • Students will use their own school experience to write a piece of fiction.

Day One

Introduce The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and To Kill a Mockingbird to the students by giving them a synopsis of what happens in the novels and an explanation of the significance of both novels. Explain that we can learn about past times from descriptions in novels.

This activity can be done in a way that works best for the students. Distribute the Attitudes towards Education sheet to the students and read it with them. As a whole class or small group activity, use this sheet to generate a discussion about different attitudes towards reading. Refer back to the chart that lists the student’s ideas.

Ask the students what they think kids in the past thought about school. Distribute the School sheet and read it with the students. Using a T chart to record similarities and differences, jot down how these quotations compare to the students’ own experiences in school today.

Day Two

Divide the students into groups of three or four. Distribute a different document to each group and ask the groups to complete the School Then & Now sheet. Once the students have had an opportunity to discuss what they see and complete the sheet, have each group present their findings to the whole class.

Day Three

Ask the students to name some of the things they learned about schools of the past. Discuss the different ways that they learned this information, through selections from novels and by examining pictures. Ask how students can tell people in the future about schools as they are now. Suggest that an interesting way to do this is to write a fictional account using school as the setting. Have the students write fictional stories that are set in their school.

Closure

Have the students share their writing with each other to see which aspects of the school experience they focused on. Create a profile or present the history of your school by using the details students incorporated into their stories.

Extension

Use selections from The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and To Kill a Mockingbird to explore attitudes about other aspects of society, such as racial tension during the Antebellum period and the Jim Crow era.

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