Using Primary Documents while Teaching Huckleberry Finn


Lesson Overview                                                                                                            

In the midst of teaching the novel, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, by Mark Twain, I find it helpful for historical context and the students’ fuller understanding to use primary documents as supplements to the novel itself.  I have embedded these documents at various stages of the novel and use them for various purposes, which I will explain.


Lesson Author


Le Cox


Vinton-Shellsburg High School, Vinton, IA


Lesson Audience

Grade Level


# of Class Periods



American Literature

Length of Period

60 min.


Objectives                                                                                                               Back to Navigation Bar

Student will:

  1. Note different kinds of appeals in rhetorical persuasion (logical, emotional, ethical), as well as, other stylistic choices made by the author.
  2. Evaluated persuasive rhetoric for effectiveness.
  3. Compare and contrast the character of Jim to real life slaves. Also evaluate Jim as a round or flat character.
  4. Compare and contrast Huck and his motivations to help Jim with real people who helped fugitive slaves.
  5. Will gain a little understanding of the antebellum time period through primary sources.




Materials                                                                                                                 Back to Navigation Bar


  1. Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain (free ebook)
  2. The Civil War by Ken Burns – section “All Night Forever” Chapter 3 and “Are We Free” Chapter 4, episode 1 “The Cause


Online Resources (hyperlink)

1.     Abraham Lincoln,  Second Inaugural Speech -


2.     Frederick Douglas – July 5th Speech - http://www.historyisaweapon.com/defcon1/douglassjuly4.html

3.     Alexander Stephens - Cornerstone Speech – http://teachingamericanhistory.org/library/index.asp?document=76

4.     John Ross Miller – Fugitive Slave Information - http://www26.us.archive.org/stream/annalsiowa05parvgoog/annalsiowa05parvgoog_djvu.txt

5.     Charlotta Pyles – Fugitive Slave Information - http://docsouth.unc.edu/neh/brownhal/brownhal.html  

6.     Rev. John Todd – Reminiscences – http://freepages.books.rootsweb.ancestry.com/~cooverfamily/chapter_8.html

            7.   James Curry – Fugitive Slave Information - http://docsouth.unc.edu/neh/curry/curry.html


Handouts (Handouts embedded in Appendix)

1.     Evaluation for Speeches

2.     “Challenges to Slavery” by Leonard F. Parker

3.     “Slavery and the Lessons of Recent Events” by William Slater

4.     Sarah Parker’s letter about Grinnell

5.     Ed Heizer’s letter

6.     Letter to Elvira Gaston Platt

7.     Article “No Questions Asked”

  1. Handout for Rescuers





Classroom Procedures                                                                 Back to Navigation Bar

Prior Learning (background information, vocabulary)

The student will need to know:

  1. The three types of appeals of persuasive rhetoric, as well as other stylistic choices made by authors of that rhetoric. (We have already introduced and evaluated this material in an earlier unit.

Activity 1: (Where these fall in the novel is completely up to the teacher. I will be inserting these in this order because of the way I teach H.F. How you insert these readings is completely up to you and your objectives.) Early on in the novel – maybe even before we start reading the novel.

  1. Break up into five groups. Each group will receive a different speech.
  2. The group will read their speech in class and then evaluate it using the rubric marked “Speech Evaluation” in the appendix.  The speeches are Abraham Lincoln’s “Second Inaugural,” Alexander Stephens’ “Cornerstone Speech,” Frederick Douglas’ “July 5th Speech,” William Salter’s sermon “Slavery and the Lessons of Recent Events,” and Leonard F. Parker’s sermon “Challenges to Slavery.” All of these I’ve either hyperlinked or have provided the transcript for in the materials section. Most of these are in their complete form. I will be not always use the whole piece, but I left it up to you to excerpt if you want.
  3. They will be presenting their findings to the class. This might take some time so I would plan on having the presentations on a second day.

Activity 2: Comparing and Contrasting Jim with real fugitive slaves

  1. Watch the beginning segment of documentary “The Civil War” by Ken Burns
  2. Notes on Frederick Douglass – PowerPoint
  3. For next class period everyone will read an excerpt from Frederick Douglass – the Covey incident. They will also read one of the following slave narratives – James Curry, Charlotta Gordon MacHenry Pyles, John Ross Miller. Some of these are in the handout section. Some are hyperlinked.
  4. Each student will be writing a response comparing/contrasting Jim to these real people. Answering the question is Jim a realistic slave or a stereotype?
  5. Small group/large group discussion the next day.
  6. At the end of the book one of the essays for the test will include this material.  I’ve included the rubric for that in the rubrics section.

Activity 3: Evaluating Huck’s motivation vs. real people (Since the articles are relatively short I will do this in only one class period – 60 min.)

  1. Once again I want students to compare/contrast a character (Huck) to real life people. I again will jigsaw the articles – small groups; each group will have a different person who helped a fugitive slave escape. The people you use might depend on where you are – I tried to pick people with Iowa connections to help hook my students – Rev. John Todd, Sarah Parker, letter to Elvira Gaston Platt, Ed Heizer and article “No Questions Asked.”
  2. Each group should read about their person and fill out the handout that asks questions about them.
  3. Then they will report back to the main group. These reports will not be graded. I’m just using it for information only.



Extension                                                                                    Back to Navigation Bar




Evaluation                                                                                                              Back to Navigation Bar



The rubric below may be used to grade the participants in Activity #1 presentation.





More Effort Needed


10 pts

8 pts

3 pts


Totally on topic; all parts of the assignment are fully addressed; everyone involved and part of presentation

Mostly on topic; all parts of the assignment are generally addressed OR one aspect of the assignment is not addressed; most of the group involved

Vaguely or not at all on topic; many parts of the assignment are not addressed or are only superficially addressed; one person says it all


10 pts

8 pts

3 pts


Fully developed ideas with coherent reasoning and/or supporting examples

Ideas not completely developed; some sloppy reasoning or poorly selected examples

Ideas not developed; lacking sufficient detail to understand the thoughts behind the words


5 pts

3.5 pts

1.5 pts


Logical organization of ideas; complete sentences; presentation was easy to follow

Somewhat logical sequence of ideas; mostly complete sentences; presentation was not always easy to follow

Disorganized thoughts; the presentation was disorganized and difficult to follow


Creativity Bonus – You may earn up to 3 extra credit points for taking an exceptionally creative approach to the assignment or for being particularly insightful. 


The rubric below may be used to grade the participants in Activity #2 Essay. Please note that I grade the essays as rough drafts, so the element for grammatical errors and spelling has been deleted. You may want to add it again.



An “A” essay:


A “B” essay:


A “C” essay:


A “D” essay:


An “F” essay:


Plusses and minuses may be used for finer-grain letter assignments.



Appendix                                                                                     Back to Navigation Bar