Producing, Executing and Performing
Connecting to History and Culture
This lesson examines the mystique of rivers as inspiration for creative expression. It also provides students with a glimpse of the powerful influence the Mississippi River and its environs had on Mark Twain’s writings. It sets some groundwork for students to consider, as their experience with Twain sources broadens, that even in the themes of his narratives and essays that appear to be far removed from his beloved “great Mississippi, the majestic, the magnificent Mississippi,” there often seems to be a consistent undercurrent in which Twain measures life against the memories of his youthful days spent on the river and its shores.
Exercise reading, research, collaborative, and writing skills.
Gain insight into and appreciation for the ways autobiographical material can be the inspirational center for creative expression.
Gather background information on one of America’s most valued and celebrated literary artists.
Recognize that geographical and cultural environment can provide inspiration for creative expression.
Respond creatively to a variety of assignments. Teaching Approach
Comprehensive Arts Education
What You'll Need
Basic U.S. geography keeping in mind
It will helpful for the teacher to know “Ol’ Man River.” A good resource is the
NPR discussion of “Ol’ Man River”. Prior Student Knowledge
Small Group Instruction
Large Group Instruction
Resources in Reach
Here are the resources you'll need for each activity, in order of instruction.
1. Develop a list of songs celebrating particular rivers. Have students ask friends and family members, and make the longest list the class can produce. Some suggestions:
"Way Down Upon the Swanee River"
"Red River Valley"
“Rivers of Texas”
“Banks of the Ohio”
“Miss the Mississippi and You”
"On the Rio Grande"
"Banks of the Wye"
"Where the Hudson River Flows"
"Something is Always Happening on the River"
"The Blue Danube Waltz"
"Blue Danube Blues"
"The Song of the Danube"
"Flow Gently, Sweet Afton"
"Where the Wabash River Flows” (Banks of the Wabash)
"Ol’ Man River"
2. Listen to a recording of “Ol’ Man River” and also to NPR’s discussion of the song.
Note some of the points the speakers make regarding the song:
The insistent beat of the song reminds us of the word “Mississippi.”
The tune recalls spirituals and other traditional African-American music.
The lyrics of the song were intended to express the experience of American slaves.
Discuss as a class how the Mississippi River is reflected in the song.
3. Discuss the use of personification and metaphor in some of the songs. Call attention particularly to how the song “Ol' Man River” anthropomorphizes the Mississippi River, but look for other examples in the class list.
4. If possible, listen to or sing some of the other songs. Compare songs written about different rivers. Do the geographical and cultural differences show in the music or lyrics of the songs?
1. Locate the Mississippi River on a map of the United States. Initiate a discussion about any experiences students might have had either in living near or visiting the river. Note the geographical positioning of the river as a divider of the mainland of the nation; also, call attention to the geographical positioning of some of the river’s tributaries. Ask students what they think "east of the Mississippi" and "west of the Mississippi" might have meant to people in the 19 th century. Do these phrases have the same connotations now?
2. Distribute a blank map of the United States to each student. Maps are courtesty of National Geographic's Xpeditions and is available to you in the Resource Carousel. Ask students to work in pairs to fill in the names and locations of key towns and cities along the Mississippi River from the Canadian border to Lake Pontchartrain. (Cities to check for might include Minneapolis, St. Paul, Dubuque, Mark Twain’s own Hannibal, St. Louis, Cairo, Memphis, Vicksburg, Natchez, Baton Rouge, and New Orleans; include cities in your own state or region as well.)
3. Discuss the different geographical and cultural elements students would experience by traveling down the Mississippi from the Canadian border to New Orleans. Since students will be conducting research on these topics, this may be an opportunity to discover that they don’t know much yet. Some points to consider:
Plants and animals
Ethnic heritage of residents
4. Ask each student to select a town on the Mississippi River to be the subject of a hypothetical visit. Encourage students to seek out information on the history of the town (battles, heroes, treaties signed, famous residents); public sculptures or statues; the nature of the port; the type of people they might encounter in the town or on the boats (language, dress, prevailing occupations, etc). These web sites might be useful:
5. Ask students to gather data about the steamboat. Encourage them to find information on a variety of aspects:
When and by whom it was invented
The basic design
The labels of the hierarchy of crew members (i.e., captain, pilot, etc.)
Any colloquial language references dedicated to the handling of the steamboat
Legends related to riverboats (i.e., lore about Davy Crockett and Mike Fink)
The various uses of the steamboat
Social, political, and cultural implications
The steamboat as inspiration for creative endeavor in the arts
6. Have students write a script based on a hypothetical visit by steamboat to the town they’ve studied. Include people they might meet and adventures they might have while sightseeing in the town.
7. Have students perform their scripts for the class.
1. Have students read chapters 4–9 from Twain’s (The book is available online at Life on the Mississippi. The Literature Network.) When the reading has been completed, divide the class into groups of two or three students each to complete the handout named Life on the Mississippi which can be found in the Resource Carousel.
2. Ask each group to share its conclusions on one of the first five questions of analysis, and discuss the last question as a class. Attempt to identify and list the characteristics of Twain’s writing that make readers feel they share his experience of the river.
3. Have students develop a detailed written account of experiences they have had on a journey. Encourage students to work at achieving the characteristics of Twain’s writing identified in the class discussion.
1. Complete a five-minute free-writing exercise. Have students write the name of their favorite river at the top of a blank piece of paper and record freely all of the words that come to mind in thinking about the river. Urge them to let their thoughts range in many directions in thinking about the river and its environs, and to include not only physical descriptions, but also imaginative adventures they could relate to the river. Students who have no direct experience of a river can choose the Mississippi and use their new-found knowledge.
Assess students on the following criteria:
Level of serious and cooperative participation in research and collaborative assignments.
Substantive contributions to class discussion and special projects.
Range and depth in analysis.
Alignment of written performance with writing process rubric.
General level of engagement in all activities and assignments.
Extend the Learning
Share some of the brainstorming lists from the free-writing exercise and ask students to develop a creative product from their lists. Options might be a poem, a song, a sketch of river scenes, or a dramatic script. Consider developing the collection of assignment responses into a "River Journal," or having a performance of material generated by the assignment.
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, A rtsE dge 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
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
Grade 9-12 Music Standard 8:
Understanding relationships between music, the other arts, and disciplines outside the arts
Grade 9-12 Music Standard 9:
Understanding music in relation to history and culture
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 5:
Researching by evaluating and synthesizing cultural and historical information to support artistic choices