Ken Burns Classroom

Tall Tales, Part 1

Ken Burns Film: Mark Twain

Collections: Emergence of Modern America (1890-1930)

Subject: Language Arts

Grade Level: 7-12

Run Time: 1 class period

“Do not tell fish stories where the people know you; but particularly, don’t tell them where they know the fish.”
– Mark Twain


Students practice the art of storytelling and then describe Mark Twain’s conflicting lifestyles and values.


In this activity your students will meet Samuel Clemens, the man with two identities who, as Mark Twain, was considered a master storyteller. Twain frequently read drafts of his work aloud to his family, judging its effectiveness by their reactions to it. Students will match their skill in weaving a tall tale with that of the master.


A “fish story” is a story that exaggerates the truth–the way the fish he caught gets bigger every time the fisherman tells his story about it. What’s the best “fish” story that you’ve ever heard? Share it with your classmates.

Mark Twain’s daughters put his tall-tale storytelling to the test when they asked him to make up new bedtime stories, incorporating each of the items on the mantle piece, from one end to the other.

Tall Tale Activity

  1. Polish your storytelling skills by taking six items found in your own classroom – a shoe, a chair, a window, a button, a pencil, and a paper clip. Weave them into your own tall tale.
  2. Remember that a tall tale takes what’s real and believable and “grows” it into something funny. How will you “grow” your story?
  3. Plot the development of your story and then write a first draft. Next, work with your team of “comedy writers” to make it even funnier.

After students have completed the first draft of their tale, divide them into small teams so they can polish each story and its delivery style–just as comedy writers do for a TV show. Then have students present their stories to their classmates to see how the same objects they used to tell their tales can be turned into very different fanciful stories.


Mark Twain was a master at creating tall tales. He would begin with an ordinary and very believable situation, and gradually embellish it until it had grown into something extraordinarily funny. For example, in the film Mark Twain, we hear his story about the camel that ate his overcoat:

In Syria, at the headwaters of the Jordan, a camel took charge of my overcoat while the tents were being pitched, and examined it with a critical eye, all over, with as much interest as if he had an idea of getting one made like it; and then, after he was done figuring on it as an article of apparel, he began to contemplate it as an article of diet.

He put his foot on it, and lifted one of the sleeves out with his teeth, and chewed and chewed at it, gradually taking it in, and all the while opening and closing his eyes in a kind of religious ecstasy, as if he had never tasted anything as good as an overcoat before, in his life.

Then my newspaper correspondence dropped out, and he took a chance in that… But he was treading on dangerous ground now. He began to come across solid wisdom in those documents that was rather weighty on his stomach; and occasionally he would take a joke that would shake him up till it loosened his teeth; it was getting to be perilous times with him, but he held his grip with good courage…, till at last he began to stumble on statements that not even a camel would swallow with impunity.

He began to gag and gasp, and his eyes to stand out, and his forelegs to spread, and in about a quarter of a minute he fell over as stiff as a carpenter’s workbench, and died a death of indescribable agony. I went and pulled the manuscript out of his mouth, and found that the sensitive creature had choked to death on one of the mildest and gentlest statements of fact I ever laid before a trusting public.

National Standards

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

  • Students apply a wide range of strategies to comprehend, interpret, evaluate, and appreciate texts. They draw on their prior experience, their interactions with other readers and writers, their knowledge of word meaning and of other texts, their word identification strategies, and their understanding of textual features (e.g., sound-letter correspondence, sentence structure, context, graphics).
  • Students employ a wide range of strategies as they write and use different writing process elements appropriately to communicate with different audiences for a variety of purposes
  • Students adjust their use of spoken, written, and visual language (e.g., conventions, style, vocabulary) to communicate effectively with a variety of audiences and for different purposes.
  • Students apply knowledge of language structure, language conventions (e.g., spelling and punctuation), media techniques, figurative language, and genre to create, critique, and discuss print and non-print texts.

This activity fulfills the following standards established by the Mid-continent Research for Education and Learning (McREL). Language Arts: Writing

  • Uses the stylistic and rhetorical aspects of writing.
  • Gathers and uses information for research purposes.

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