Snow Days and Huckleberry Finn…

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Here we are, another snow day — the 2nd one this week, actually. What a crazy winter!  This time, I have no work at home with me, so I’m cherishing these days as writing days.  

On Monday, my 11th graders are scheduled to have an in-class essay test on The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and I wondered, tongue in cheek, on a Facebook posting, how fantastic the essays might be because of these extra days to prepare… 

Of course I’m kidding.  

I suspect that my students, like me, like most of us probably, see snow days as a chance to lie around, watch back-to-back episodes of Law and Order: SVU, Castle, or NCIS.  Maybe, like me, they read a book just for fun.  Or, not like me, play video games or other computer games.  Maybe they bake stuff they normally don’t have time to bake or maybe they go outside and take a walk in the snow, or build snowmen and snow forts, have a snowball fight.  Maybe they just sleep.  

But however they decide to spend their snow days, in the best light, these days are gifts of extra time, a lull in our otherwise busy lives, maybe even a reminder to slow down.  Here in Virginia, we’ve been forced this winter to slow down a lot. 

I can’t say that I wasn’t thrilled to have temperatures hovering near 70 this past weekend.  Sunday was picture-perfect for the Groundforce IT Snowflake Ride (I guess we encouraged the snowflakes…) when about 300 of us cycled out from the Richmond Bicycle Studio into Ashland to race money for Richmond Cycling Corps, a fabulous organization that takes inner city kids and teaches them to ride bikes and, in some cases, to race.  How glorious the sun felt!  The warmth. But I have to say, these snow days, too, are lovely in their own way, like extra long weekends, terrific excuses to be lazy or self-indulgent.  It’s just that we’ve had so many of them this year!  

To be honest, I wouldn’t mind so much, except for the need to make up the school days.  Here in VA, we go by “seat hours,” and my school — Appomattox Regional Governor’s School — has a longer school day than most, so we get in a lot of seat hours.  We’ve been told that up until now, we’re OK and won’t need to make up time — though after yesterday and today, I’m no longer certain.  Still, how much inconvenience is two extra days, right?  Well — the inconvenience is much more than that.  Certainly, the theatre department is trying to decide whether or not our spring play — As You Like It — can still open next Friday (they are currently in the midst of tech rehearsals); English SOLs (Standards of Learning, the state-mandated tests) for 11th graders have been disrupted, which means that most likely, classes NEXT week will also be disrupted so students can take those tests.  

Certainly, we are all feeling the loss of classroom time.  We can’t read all the books we normally read — or we do, but we rush through.  We try to still teach the same content, convinced as we are that what we teach matters very much.  I say “we,” but maybe I should speak for myself!  Each year, snow days not withstanding, I struggle deciding which books I’d like to teach, the ones I feel I must teach, all the others I don’t have time for.  There are so many I don’t get to — no Hemingway, no Faulkner, no Baldwin, no Morrison. 

And if time is shortened and something has got to go, what will it be?  The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, where we have our most profound discussions?  Sometimes those discussions are about race and sometimes, as they were this year, they are about the process of learning that, like Huck, what we’ve been taught by the adults in our lives isn’t always right.  We talk about Huck’s moral dilemma — his decision to help Jim escape, a decision he thinks is “wrong” because everything that a young boy is supposed to look up to and learn from, i.e. the “good” adults in his life, his church, his school, his government,  has been telling him that slavery is OK.  And while he never comes to the conclusion that slavery itself is wrong, he does come to the decision that if helping Jim — his friend — is wrong, he’ll “go to hell.”  

And then, a student asks me if I think there are things in our world today that might be similar?  We talk about growing up, how it’s an inevitable process to discover the things we grow up thinking are one way because that’s what we’ve been taught might not, in fact, be that way.  We find ourselves in the position of disagreeing with our parents, our churches, our teachers — and what do we do about it? How do we handle those disagreements, and what does it say about those people?  The student nearly gasps.  “We’ve been having that very conversation!”  she says, pointing to a friend who sits behind her.  It’s the beauty of literature, I tell her and the rest of the class.  We can grapple with those questions. Sure, we can talk about it in the abstract– how Huck comes to his decision to help Jim, why Hester doesn’t reveal Dimmesdale’s identity or more importantly, why Dimmesdale doesn’t confess,  or the way Gatsby insists that we can repeat the past — but ultimately, the hope is that we transfer those thoughts to ourselves and our own lives.  

It’s why we read. And why we write.  

OK — I think my post here took a detour — I think meant to write about the ways that the SOLs (the irony of that acronym…) force us to deal with snow days, the fact that the tests won’t be cancelled or changed in spite of losing so many school days to winter weather.  For teachers whose SOL tests are content-specific — math, history, science– they still have to “fit in” their content somehow.  And I guess I struggle with that enough on my own!  I hate giving up anything.  I hate more, though, that standardized tests don’t / can’t measure what matters most, what kinds of transformations students go through, or the kinds of understandings they come to.

Because in the long run, does it really matter if we have a certain number of days in school?  Will it really matter to these kids years from now, in the grand scheme of their lives, whether or not they missed a week of school?  It won’t.  

I need these snow days to help me remember that! 

 

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4 thoughts on “Snow Days and Huckleberry Finn…

  1. Bill Wolfe

    I enjoyed this thoughtful post, if “enjoyed” is the right word. You articulate the conflicts and frustrations very well. As for which literature to keep, I vote for Huck Finn above all (for the reasons you delineate). If you can’t fit in a Hemingway or Faulkner novel, how about their stories? (I think Hemingway was a better short story writer anyway.) For Faulkner, I use “Barn Burning” as an encapsulation of his themes and style. We teach The Crucible, The Scarlet Letter, The Great Gatsby, and Grapes of Wrath (crucial because we are in the San Joaquin Valley, where it is set — it is the story of many of our people). I hope everything turns out acceptably in the end.

    Reply
    1. pattysmith31 Post author

      Thanks for your comment and your thoughts! Yes– I sometimes go for the short stories, too — because they do get across the ideas I’m often hoping to convey — but I pulled away from our American lit anthology a bit to introduce more novels. I want the students to immerse themselves in books — but of course, that takes time. Still — I’m not so much worried about it all as mulling it over in public! I love hearing what others do, too, though; it helps me sort through my ideas!

      Reply
  2. Karen Franklin

    Beautifully expressed, teaching and learning is so much bigger than the classroom. So many things that we think are important in the moment really don’t matter in the long run. I have come to remind myself of that especially in the last year as I transitioned out of teaching.

    Reply
  3. Terry Cowdrey

    I love reading your writing. I bet the most important thing your students are learning is to love books, stories, tales…for their characters and their adventures but even more for how so much of what we read leads us to think and wonder and question and discuss. If your students graduate loving to read then you have more than done your job–you have changed their lives.

    Reply

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