Twain: Steamboat's a-Comin'

One of the most important characters in Mark Twain’s work wasn’t a human being


Key Staff

Classroom Teacher

Key Skills

Making Art: Producing, Executing and Performing
Global Connections: 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.

Learning Objectives

Students will:

  • 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

Teaching Methods

  • Discussion
  • Research
  • Guided Listening
  • Multimedia Instruction

Assessment Type

Informal Assessment


What You'll Need

Required Technology
  • 1 Computer per Learner
Lesson Setup

Teacher Background

Basic U.S. geography keeping in mind regional differences.

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

  • Basic map skills

Physical Space

Computer Lab


  • Individualized Instruction
  • Small Group Instruction
  • Large 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. 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"
  • "Swanee"
  • "Red River Valley"
  • “Rivers of Texas”
  • “Banks of the Ohio”
  • “Shenandoah”
  • “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)
  • "Wabash Blues"
  • "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?

Build Knowledge

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 19th 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:

  • Terrain
  • Plants and animals
  • Ethnic heritage of residents
  • Languages spoken
  • Foods
  • Music

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

Useful websites:

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 Life on the Mississippi. (The book is available online at 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.


Throughout the nation, standards of learning are being revised, published and adopted. During this time of transition, ARTSEDGE will continually add connections to the Common Core, Next Generation Science standards and other standards to our existing lessons, in addition to the previous versions of the National Standards across the subject areas.

The Arts Standards used in ARTSEDGE Lessons are the 1994 voluntary national arts standards. The Arts learning standards were revised in 2014; please visit the National Core Arts Standards (http://nationalartsstandards.org) for more. The Kennedy Center is working on developing new lessons to connect to these standards, while maintaining the existing lesson library aligned to the Common Core, other state standards, and the 1994 National Standards for Arts Education.

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

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

National Standards in Other Subjects

Geography Standard 2: Knows the location of places, geographic features, and patterns of the environment

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



Jayne Karsten
Original Writer

Rebecca Haden

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Use this collection of resources and articles to devise an approach for supporting individual needs in the classroom: from English Language Learners or students with disabilities, to conflict resolution and giving feedback.



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