/educators/lessons/grade-9-12/Twain_American_Humorist

Twain: An American Humorist

Was Mark Twain the first truly American writer?

Overview

Key Staff

Classroom Teacher

Key Skills

Global Connections: Connecting to History and Culture
Making Art: Performance Skills and Techniques
Developing Arts Literacies: Analyzing and Evaluating - Critique

Summary

Students will analyze humor and the American character, developing a definition of “American humor.” Students will then analyze selections from the work of Mark Twain, seeking the characteristics that led William Faulkner to say that Twain was “the first truly American writer.”

Learning Objectives

Students will:

  • Broaden experience in computer skills.
  • Discern characteristics perceived to be distinctly American.
  • Discern that the goals of humor often go beyond entertainment and can be aimed at satirizing and debunking.
  • Exercise performance skills.
  • Gain understanding of and appreciation for Mark Twain’s giant stature as the first “true” American humorist.
  • Gain understanding of some of the intricate processes of Mark Twain’s projection of humor.
  • Recognize the basic sources from which humor emanates in human expression.
  • Recognize specific devices used in visual and performing arts to generate humor.
  • Recognize that the drive to shape a national consciousness in America in the first part of the 19th century included passionate appeals for a national literature.
  • Strengthen process skills of reading, writing, analysis, and collaborative problem-solving.

Teaching Approach

Comprehensive Arts Education

Teaching Methods

  • Discussion
  • Research
  • Cooperative Learning

Assessment Type

Informal Assessment

Preparation

What You'll Need

Materials
Resources
Required Technology
  • 1 Computer per Small Group
Lesson Setup

Teacher Background

Teacher should be familiar with global examples of humor, such as the works of Aristophanes, Swift, Voltaire, and Shakespeare, and with the work of Mark Twain.

Teachers should be familiar with 19th century American culture.

Prior Student Knowledge

  • Students will be most successful if they’re fairly familiar with American popular culture.
  • Students should recognize the 19th century as a time of significant change for the United States.

Grouping

  • Individualized Instruction
  • Small Group Instruction
  • Large Group Instruction

Staging

Depending on available resources, teacher may need to print or cue up selections from Mark Twain

Accessibility Notes

ELL students could add to the lesson by sharing examples of how humor in their own cultures differs from that in the United States.

Instruction

Resources in Reach

Here are the resources you'll need for each activity, in order of instruction.

Build Knowledge

Engage

1. Ask students to make two columns on a sheet of paper and write the heading "America, the place" at the top of one column and the heading "America, the people" above the other column.

Assign students to make jot lists for each column, freely recording in words and phrases what they think are the distinctive characteristics of "America, the place" and of "America, the people."

2. As a class, create a master list delineating the students’ perceptions of America and its people.

Ask students to consider if their lists would describe Americans both today and in the 19th century. Add, change, and subtract characteristics to arrive at a list which Mark Twain and the class could agree upon. Encourage students to consider some of the following questions:

  • Is diversity part of the unity of America?
  • Are there prevailing goals in America?
  • What do you think a national literature should celebrate?
  • What should a national literature criticize?
  • Is there a prevailing heroic ideal in America?
  • Is there a prevailing quality of humor in America?
  • If you think so, how would you define it?

3. Share with students excerpts from the following works:

Build Knowledge

1. Return to the question raised in the first activity: Is there a type of humor that is characteristically American?

After cautioning students to use appropriate taste in their selection of an example, ask students to share favorite jokes. As a class, isolate specific elements that students think contribute to the humor of the jokes.

2. Have students complete an in-class writing assignment in which they construct an analysis of what they consider to be the central force or forces of different types of humor. Share the written responses. Construct a list including:

  • The undercurrent of human limitations
  • Human foibles
  • Our inability to control the physical environment
  • Exaggeration of experience and personality
  • Manipulation of language
  • The irony of the unexpected
  • The juxtaposition of the logical and the illogical (incongruity)

Help students recognize these elements of humor if necessary.

3. Divide the class into collaborative groups (3 to 5 students each) to study examples of American humor. Have students choose from among these topics:

  • The nature of humor in the exchanges between the "interlocutor" and "end men" (refer to the Vocabulary handout within the Resource Carousel for definitions) in America’s early minstrel shows
  • The nature of humor in vaudeville, an indigenous American art form
  • The nature of humor in the American circus, including clowns, side shows, barkers, etc.
  • The humor found in early radio shows such as those of George Burns and Gracie Allen, Jack Benny, and Fred Allen
  • The nature of humor in Broadway musicals such as Once Upon A Mattress, The Producers, or Spamalot; remind students that the musical is an indigenous American art form
  • The nature of humor in early movies such as those of Charlie Chaplin, the Marx Brothers, and the Three Stooges
  • Diverse types of humor found in movies and TV sit-coms, particularly those that are about American families, are positioned in American settings, or involve Americans abroad
  • Diverse ways that American cartooning visually projects humor
  • The humor of stand-up comedians such as Jerry Seinfeld, Demetri Martin, or Jon Stewart.

4. As a class, develop a definition of American humor. Have students re-examine their list of the central foci of humor. After adjusting the list in light of their research into American humor, have students compare this list with their list of American characteristics. Use these two documents to develop a definition of American humor.

Apply

1. Have students read Mark Twain’s "How to Tell a Story." Quiz students (in written or oral form) on such aspects as these:

  • How does Twain differentiate among "humorous," "comic," and "witty" stories?
  • What key points does he make about how a "humorous" story should be told?
  • What points of comparison does he draw between the style of the "humorous" storyteller and that of the "comic" storyteller in handling the "nub" and the "pause"?
  • Twain makes the point that the humorous story is an American development. What, in Twain’s perception, is the "basis of the American art of storytelling"?

2. Assign students to read one or more of the following Mark Twain selections:

(These selections should be previewed by the teacher to assess their appropriateness for the teacher’s school community.)

3. Divide students into collaborative groups (3 to 4 students per group) to analyze Twain’s humor. Emphasize that students should use specific examples from the texts to prove their points. Have students use the class definition of American humor, as well as the following study questions:

  • Does Twain follow, in his written work, any of his advice from "How to Tell A Story"?
  • Does Twain use the basic elements of the tall tale?
  • How does Twain project the colloquial flavor of the tales?
  • Can students find examples of caricature in Twain’s stories?
  • Do any of the selections demonstrate incongruity as a central humorous force?

4. Ask students to compare other examples of humor they might have read with Twain. Depending on the reading list for your school, these might be possibilities:

  • Voltaire’s Candide
  • Jonathan Swift’s A Modest Proposal
  • Cervantes’s Don Quixote
  • Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream

Reflect

1. Hold a humorous “yarn" contest, in which students spin a story orally. Let the rules for judging be based on Twain’s statements in the assigned article about how a humorous story should be told. Encourage students to use some of the devices they have observed in the Twain readings in building their yarn.

2. Let students deliver their yarns in collaborative groups (4 or 5 students per group). Each group should select a winning yarn out of the group.

3. Share the choices in the large group. Ask students to comment on ways the winning responses honor Twain’s advice on "How to Tell a Story."

Extend the Learning

Essay Prompt

Consider the following comments made by William Dean Howells on Twain’s achievements as a writer, and write an essay based on one of the three options outlined below:

“His great charm is his absolute freedom in a region where most are fettered by convention. … [H]e saunters out into the trim world of letters, and lounges about at will. … [H]ow entirely American he is. … [H]ow truly Western he is … with more honest laughter in [his humor] than humor ever had in the world till now. … [H]is work … expresses a civilization whose courage of the chances, the preferences, the duties, is not the measure of its essential modesty. … [H]is single-minded use of words strongly conveys intention from the author’s mind to the reader’s mind. … It is the Abraham Lincolnian word … and what finally appeals to you, in Mark Twain, is his common sense. … [Twain] is the Lincoln of our literature."

1. Clarify, and support or challenge, Howells’ assertion that Mark Twain is "the Lincoln of our literature." Be sure to use specific evidence from your analysis of Twain’s writings. Remember that a paper of comparative analysis should balance the evidence, i.e., each key point made should be shaped with references specifically to both Lincoln and Twain when arguing the connections.

2. Take a position about Howells’ statement, "how entirely American he [Twain] is." Return to the class list of characteristics. In developing your arguments, examine such aspects as Twain’s colloquial flavor, the regional local color. But also consider other points that Howells makes about the nature of Twain as a writer. Be sure to build your defense with a good body of specific references from the texts of Twain’s writings.

3. Develop an assessment of Mark Twain’s work as true national literature, using the first few paragraphs of Walt Whitman’s "Preface" to Leaves of Grass as the springboard of your analysis. Be sure to use specific evidence from both Whitman’s text and Twain sources in building your argument.

Standards

The Common Core State Standards Initiative seeks to bring diverse state curricula into alignment through a set of common learning goals and assessments. In 2010, Standards were released for English language arts and mathematics. Common standards have not yet been released for science, social studies, and other subject areas, including the arts. In addition, some states have yet to, or have chosen not to, adopt the Common Core standards.

During this transitional period, ArtsEdge will present all relevant state and nationals standards as they apply to our lessons.

National Standards for Arts Education

For the full text of the content and achievement standards in Arts Education, visit our Standards section.

ArtsEdge Lessons connect to the National Standards for Arts Education, the Common Core Standards, and a range of other subject area standards.

Common Core/State Standards

Select state and grade(s) below, then click "Find" to display Common Core and state standards.

National Standards For Arts Education
Theater

Grade 9-12 Theater Standard 1: Script writing through improvising, writing, and refining scripts based on personal experience and heritage, imagination, literature, and history

Grade 9-12 Theater Standard 2: Acting by developing, communicating, and sustaining characters in improvisations and informal or formal productions

Grade 9-12 Theater Standard 3: Designing and producing by conceptualizing and realizing artistic interpretations for informal or formal productions

Grade 9-12 Theater Standard 5: Researching by evaluating and synthesizing cultural and historical information to support artistic choices

Grade 9-12 Theater Standard 6: Comparing and integrating art forms by analyzing traditional theatre, dance, music, visual arts, and new art forms

Grade 9-12 Theater Standard 7: Analyzing, critiquing, and constructing meanings from informal and formal theatre, film, television, and electronic media productions

National Standards in Other Subjects
Language Arts

Language Arts Standard 1: Uses the general skills and strategies of the writing process

Language Arts Standard 5: Uses the general skills and strategies of the reading process

Language Arts

Language Arts Standard 8: Uses listening and speaking strategies for different purposes

Credits

Writers

Jayne Karsten
Original Writer

Rebecca Haden
Adaptation

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