Ken Burns Classroom

Powerful Words, Part 2

Ken Burns Film: Mark Twain

Collections: Emergence of Modern America (1890-1930)

Subject: Language Arts

Grade Level: 7-12

Run Time: 1 class period

“… I have no race prejudices, and I think I have no color prejudices nor caste prejudices nor creed prejudices. Indeed I know it… All that I care to know is that a man is a human being – that is enough for me…”
– Mark Twain


Students identify and describe the influence slavery had on Mark Twain’s writing, and then determine the status of race relations and ethnic differences in their lives.

In this activity, students will consider other examples of Twain’s vernacular storytelling through his descriptions of race relations and the lives of African Americans of his time. More mature students might frame their own thoughts about how their lives might be different if they were of a different race.


Do you think the condition of race relations has changed for the better? Conduct a week long media watch to find TV news stories and newspaper articles about current racial dynamics. Pick one issue and research how relevant it was in Twain’s day. If the issue you have chosen was relevant in Twain’s time, research how it was treated in the media and literature then. Write your findings on a separate sheet of paper.


Tom Sawyer is the best loved of all of Mark Twain’s books – “a celebration of small-town boyhood in which the hero solves a murder mystery, manages to eavesdrop on his own funeral, and tricks his friends into painting his fences.” Tom Sawyer gives us a very “whitewashed” account of childhood. Huckleberry Finn – which has been debated, attacked and censored ever since its 1885 publication – is something else entirely.

Written in dialect like the story of Mary Ann Cord, Huckleberry Finn’s power lies in the characters’ own voices. As the story begins, Huck says:

You don’t know about me, without you have read a book by the name of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, but that ain’t no matter. That book was made by Mr. Mark Twain, and he told the truth, mainly…

Set before the Civil War, it is the story of two runaways – a white boy, Tom’s friend Huckleberry Finn – who is fleeing civilization – and a black man, Jim, who is running away from slavery. Huck’s experiences with Jim make him question everything he has been taught about black people and slavery, about right and wrong, good and evil.

When Huck awakens to hear Jim crying for his lost children, he realizes for the first time that “I guess Jim misses his family the way white folk’d do their’n.” Later, Huck feels he has been wrong to help Jim escape and writes a letter to Jim’s owner telling him where his fleeing property can be found. But before mailing it he hesitates, remembering Jim’s kindness on their trip on the river and how Jim had said that Huck was the best friend he’d ever had in the world, “and the only one he’s got now…”

Huck continues:

… and then I happened to look around and see that paper.

I took it up, and held it in my hand. I was a-trembling because I’d got to decide, forever, betwixt two things, and I knowed it. I studied a minute, sort of holding my breath, and then says to myself:

“All right then, I’ll go to hell” – and tore it up.

Extended Activity

Ask students why they think Twain’s work was (and still is) so influential. Explain that when Huckleberry Finn was first published, it was banned from many libraries because of its rough language and poor grammar, and because it celebrated the life of a boy who lived by his own rules. It remains controversial in some parts of this country today because of its portrayal of black people. Do your students think the controversy that surrounds the language Twain uses – especially the liberal use of the word “nigger” in Huckleberry Finn – detracts from his work’s impact? Do they believe the controversy is warranted? You might also discuss other famous works that have been banned, such as To Kill a Mockingbird.

National Standards

This activity fulfills the following standard established by the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE):

  • Students read a wide range of print and non-print texts to build an understanding of texts, of themselves, and of the cultures of the United States and the world; to acquire new information; to respond to the needs and demands of society and the workplace; and for personal fulfillment. Among these texts are fiction and nonfiction, classic and contemporary works.
  • Students read a wide range of literature from many periods in many genres to build an understanding of the many dimensions (e.g., philosophical, ethical, aesthetic) of human experience.

This activity fulfills the following standard established by the Mid-continent Research for Education and Learning (McREL).

Language Arts: Listening and Speaking

  • Uses listening and speaking strategies for different purposes.

United States History: Era 4 – Expansion and Reform (1801-1861)

  • Understands how the industrial revolution, increasing immigration, the rapid expansion of slavery, and the westward movement changed American lives and led to regional tensions

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