Friday, February 1, 2013

What do Marks Mean?

The Problem or is that Opportunity of Huck Finn

by Karen Hamilton - Tuesday, June 22, 2010, 03:28 PM

The case study presented with the multiracial group of students who created a multimedia version of a final project on Huck Finn rather than the individual written report required is certainly complicated on many levels. In many respects, the case study, the subject matter and the writing in the novel reflect on many of the issues inherent in The New London Groups 1996 paper, A Pedagogy of Multiliteracies: Designing Social Futures.

In the novel it is evident that both Huck and Jim are intelligent but uneducated. The language they use is considered “unsivilised.” On the other hand, the so-called civilized characters act in less than civilized ways. The journey of the main characters represents an authentic education to the characters. The book both presents and creates a number of moral dilemmas. Because of the portrayal of its characters and its racially charged language, it has become a controversial book and its use in education has often been challenged.

Can an assignment that asks students to read the book and write a summary on their own reflect the complexity of the book? Are all of the students mature enough to deal with the multilevel racial issues on their own? I think not. This is my first dilemma with the assignment.

Perhaps how the students took on the project as a group and illustrated the ideas in Huck Finn speaks to the lack of forethought in the original assignment. Did the students feel a need to discuss and work together? As the New London Group states, “Our view of mind, society and learning is based on the assumption that the human mind is embodied, situated and social.” (A Pedagogy of Multiliteracies, 1996) To me, this book is not one to be taken on alone, and left to a book report. What the students who decided to create a multimedia project did was most real and authentic. Not only did they create an interesting multimedia project, but they were also critical and questioned Twain’s portrayal of race. A discussion of the portrayal of race is something that needs to happen with a controversial book like this. Their use of Hip Hop to illustrate the book is interesting especially since it, like the language in the book, is often controversial.

To me, what these students created was similar to what the London Group asks. “Multiliteracies also create a different kind of pedagogy, one in which language and other modes of meaning are dynamic representational resources, constantly being remade by their users as they work to achieve their various cultural purposes.” These students redesigned, to use the language of the New London Group, much like today’s students who create mash-ups to re-envision the then and the now. Their learning was authentic and meaningful.

Having defended the work of the group, I have to now ask what was the purpose of the assignment? In my college, our courses have clearly defined outcomes and assignments should link to outcomes. Was the outcome here for students to gain a deeper understanding of the book and to use critical thinking skills to analyze it? If this is the outcome, then the outcomes have been met. If, however, the outcomes of the assignment were the above plus also to demonstrate in writing using standard writing, grammar, spelling, punctuation and bibliographical format, then the writing portion has not been met. If this were the case, I would call the students in to discuss how valuable the project was and to ask them how they would meet the last outcome. In my experience, asking students what should happen usually leads to the best solution because they are the ones who decide on what exactly it should be. In this case, any written work submitted would be individual. Perhaps this written work would explain how their project led each of them to a deeper understanding of the book, the issues and how it is relevant to them today. This request should not be presented as a penalty but as a chance to get the highest mark that it sounds to me like they deserve.

In real life, this most likely wouldn’t have happened to me because all of my assignments have options for more creative delivery. The courses I teach relate to media, and today that necessitates more than a flat text driven assignment. The above teacher though, might want to reflect on the assignment and create an assignment that involves social discussion, reflection and a multi literacy approach.

I hadn’t really thought about Mark Twain and Huck Finn for a long time, so it sent me back to do a bit of re-reading and also to look into the controversy of the book. In my journey, I came across Peaches Henry’s 1992, 8200-word essay The Struggle for Tolerance: Race and Censorship in Huckleberry Finn detailing the controversy. In her thorough and thoughtful essay she brings out many sides to the controversy but she concludes:

“The insolubility of the race question as regards Huckleberry Finn functions as a model of the fundamental racial ambiguity of the American mind¬set. Active engagement with Twain's novel provides one method for students to confront their own deepest racial feelings and insecurities.”

For me, active engagement with Twain’s novel is precisely what occurred when the students created a multimedia view of Huck Finn. They deconstructed the novel and reconstructed it in a way that was meaningful and relevant. If my students do that, I am more than happy.

What is it that we share in common?

We share a common goal to communicate and to question, and to make and create meaning of this thing we call life.

Cazden, C., Cope, B. Fairclough, N., Gee, J. et al. (Spring 1996). A pedagogy of multiliteracies: Designing social futures, Harvard Educational Review; 66, 1 Research Library pg. 60.

Henry, Peaches. (1992). The Struggle for Tolerance: Race and Censorship in Huckleberry Finn, Satire and Evasion: Black Perspectives on Huckleberry Finn. Retrieved from

No comments:

Post a Comment