Twain: Tom Sawyer—Mythic Adventurer

As Mark Twain is an authentic voice of America, Tom Sawyer is an archetype of American character.


Key Staff

Classroom Teacher

Key Skills

Global Connections: Connecting to History and Culture
Developing Arts Literacies: Analyzing and Evaluating - Critique


Students will learn about Mark Twain’s hometown and the source of the setting for The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. Students will read the novel and analyze it, with particular attention to character and style. Students will consider Tom as an expression of the American character.

Learning Objectives

Students will:

  • Recognize Mark Twain as an American “voice.”
  • Appreciate the power of memory as inspiration for creative expression.
  • Become acquainted with the topography of Mark Twain’s hometown.
  • Become better acquainted with the regional manners, mores, attitudes and values of pre-Civil War Mississippi River towns.
  • Build a variety of written responses to assignments.
  • Consider the nature of the American character and the forces that have helped to shape its mythic aspects.
  • Develop comparisons of literary selections.
  • Explore the impact of environment on the shaping of the individual.
  • Participate in collaborative problem-solving tasks.
  • Use their personal early adolescent experience to gauge the validity of Mark Twain’s account of early adolescence.

Teaching Approach

Comprehensive Arts Education

Teaching Methods

  • Research
  • Discussion

Assessment Type

Informal Assessment


What You'll Need

Required Technology
  • 1 Computer per Learner
Required Plugins
Lesson Setup

Teacher Background

Teacher should know The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and be familiar with the life and works of Mark Twain.

Prior Student Knowledge

  • Students should be fairly clear on basics of U.S. geography and history.
  • This lesson builds on previous lessons in the unit.

Physical Space

  • Computer Lab
  • Media Center or Library


  • Individualized Instruction
  • Large Group Instruction
  • Small Group Instruction

Accessibility Notes

Students with physical disabilities may need modified movements.


Resources in Reach

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

Build Knowledge


1.    Discuss how authors’ life experiences might influence their writing.
Mark Twain was born in Florida, Missouri, grew up in Hannibal, Missouri, and drew heavily in his development of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (and many other of his texts) from memories of his boyhood days in Hannibal. This part of Missouri, generally considered a Midwestern state, was known as “Little Dixie,” and has cultural and economic connections with the South.

2.    Prepare a KWL chart to explore students’ prior knowledge about the setting of the novel.
Find out what students already know about the setting of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, and record it in the “K” (already know) section of the chart.  Consider which aspects of the setting might have grown out of Twain’s own experiences. List things which make the class curious or stump the students in the “W” (want to know) section.

Build Knowledge

1. Divide the class into collaborative groups (2 to 3 students in a group) to conduct research about Hannibal, Missouri.
After locating Hannibal, Missouri, on a map, assign each group one or more of the following topics to research in Web and print media (discussed in more detail in the accompanying Research Topics handout). Ask each group to prepare a brief overview of their findings to present to the class. Research topics:

  1. The landscape around Hannibal.
  2. The cultural climate of American towns like Hannibal in the 1840s and 1850s
  3. The American one-room schoolhouse in the 1840s-1850s.
  4. The Missouri Compromise
  5. social life in towns such as Hannibal in the 1840s-1850s

2.    Have student groups present their findings.
Allow class to ask questions of the presenters.

3.    Have students develop a one-act play set in a hypothetical Missouri town along the Mississippi River.
Advise students to draw detail from the oral presentations to capture the geographical setting and cultural flavor of their hypothetical place and its people. Ask students also to name the town and to describe an event that sparks reactions among some of the town inhabitants. For instance, students could write about the arrival of a steamboat, the arrival of a new family in the town, an incident in the one-room schoolhouse or in a social gathering, a shocking incident, etc.

4.    Fill in the “L” (learned) section of the chart.
Include the answers to the questions from the “W” section, as well as especially interesting points the class discovered.

Resources for this step:

Research Topics


1.    Have students read The Adventures of Tom Sawyer independently and discuss the book in small groups. Have each group choose three episodes from the novel; consider dividing the episodes to ensure that the entire book is covered. Use the following questions to guide discussion of the episodes:

  • Do any of the details of your hypothetical town match Twain's descriptions of the village in which Tom Sawyer lives?
  • What characters are involved in each episode?
  • What are their relationships to each other?
  • What specific events occur in each episode?
  • How does each character react to the events?
  • What artistic purpose does the episode serve in relation to the rest of the novel? For example, does it move a key thread of the narrative forward or give new insight into the personalities of the characters involved?
  • How would you sum up Tom's relationship with his Aunt Polly? With Becky Thatcher? With Huck Finn?
  • What impact does each episode have on Tom? Does it reinforces his self-confidence or challenge it? Does it create particular feelings or edge him into a new level of maturity?

2.    Ask older students to do a free-write in which they record memories of turning 11, 12, or 13.
Ask students to close their eyes and call up a visual memory of a specific encounter that occurred in middle school or junior high school. Ask them to focus the memory, identifying people, interactions, conversations, and their emotional response. Ask students to record the scene in writing.

3.    Using the free-writing experience and the exploration of Tom Sawyer, discuss whether Twain’s images of growing up are realistic.
Consider whether The Adventures of Tom Sawyer is a story about an individual and his experiences of growing up, a memoir, or social commentary about the time and place in which it is set.


1.    As an informal in-class writing exercise, ask each student to develop a personal assessment of Tom Sawyer.
The assessment should answer the following questions:

  • How old is Tom?
  • What are some of his basic personality traits? How does he relate to his peers?
  • Would you like him as a friend, if you were (or are) about the same age you have indicated as his age? Why? Why not?
  • Do you see him as a simple or as a complex personality? Explain your position with specific evidence from the text.

2.    Have students discuss Tom Sawyer as an American archetype.
R.W.B. Lewis, in his book entitled The American Adam, argues that the profile of the American character, as it began to crystallize in the first half of the 19th century, was one of a "new man" in a "new world," "innocent," seeking to live the "natural" life, working to free himself from the "shackles" of past conventions, beliefs, and attitudes. This "Adamic archetype" was, Lewis thought, a basic theme in Americans’ idea of themselves. Have students use their in-class writing to support their positions in the discussion.

Have students write an essay or dramatic work, using an option from the Essay Topics handout.

Notes to editor:

One option is to compare Tom Sawyer with lit about teenagers at other time periods. The most recent examples are The Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew. Maybe Twilight would be overstepping, but maybe Hatchet?

Resources for this step:

Essay Topics


Evaluate students on the following criteria:
  • level of serious and cooperative participation in research and collaborative assignments.
  • level of discernment in contributions from research and to collaborative work.
  • substantive contributions to class discussion and special projects.
  • range and depth in analysis.
  • organization, meaningful substance, rhetorical skill, and poise in formal oral presentation.
  • alignment of written performance with writing process rubric.
  • general level of engagement in all activities and assignments.

1. Ask students to identify superstitions from the text, and discuss the purpose of the superstitions in the novel. Initiate a discussion about Tom's recognition of various omens generated by superstitions and how Tom and his friends rationalize experiences related to the omens. Ask students to identify the ways the dwelling on superstitions contributes to the characterization of Tom and to the advancement of the narrative. Compare Tom’s views on signs and omens with those of the class, and create an illustrated class book of superstitions.

2. Study caves, and have the class assess the authenticity of Twain's descriptions of a cave in Chapters XXIX, XXX, XXXI, and XXXIII. Useful websites:

3. Ask students to write about a scary situation they’ve experienced. After asking students to recount Tom and Becky's adventure in the cave, point out that several of the episodes in the book put Tom, Huck, and others in frightening situations. Ask students to develop a written account of an incident in which they have been frightened, or to develop a hypothetical scary situation in which they could have been involved. This could be combined with the playwriting assignment in this lesson.

4. Have older students compare Tom Sawyer with the short story "Araby" from James Joyce's Dubliners, both of which are set in their respective authors’ boyhood hometowns. Some areas of consideration could be reactions to surroundings, the threshold teen boy's inner struggle to understand and deal with his new feelings about girls, the self-assessments of predicaments, and the epiphanies of limitations and defeat. Ask students to consider the impact of the environment in which each author grew up as a factor in the shaping of the tone quality of the two works.


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Jayne Karsten
Original Writer

Rebecca Haden

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