Enrich Your Middle Schooler’s Socialization Through Literature: A Tom Sawyer Book Club

(I received Sonlight 100 in exchange for a series of blog posts that contain my honest opinion.)

Build homeschooling socialization while reading a good book together!

When an author tells you straight-up what he wants you to do with his book, you pay attention. Especially when that author is the renown Mark Twain.

This year,  Vivienne’s 7th grade Sonlight literature curriculum includes The Adventures of Tom Sawyer In the preface, Twain writes,

“Although my book is intended mainly for the entertainment of boys and girls, I hope it will not be shunned by men and women on that account,  for part of my plan has been to try pleasantly to remind adults of what they once were themselves, and of how they felt and thought and talked, and what queer enterprises they sometimes engaged in.”

Viv and I figured that if, way back in 1876, Mark Twain wanted her to get a kick out of Tom Sawyer’s adventures, we would read the book just like that. We intended to have some fun with this one.

It’s even more fun with friends!

We wanted to invite some friends along for the ride and we didn’t have to look very far.

It just so happens that I teach a middle school literature class for Viv and her peers once a week. We agreed that this would be the perfect fit: we’d devote the third quarter to a Mark Twain book club.

Fifteen enthused peers read The Adventures of Tom Sawyer together. It was my job to guide them toward, well, entertainment the whole time.

We read the book over the span of 8 weeks, covering 4 – 5 chapters each week. In the end, I can confidently say that the students thoroughly enjoyed the book together and I was honored to sit in on their laughter and discussions.

Ideas for a Tom Sawyer book club:

Whether your student is reading The Adventures of Tom Sawyer as part of Sonlight 100 or another curriculum or you are simply wanting to connect with your child in a meaningful way, creating a book club around such a fun masterpiece will be worthwhile.

Have fun, have fun, have fun.

“There comes a time in every rightly constructed boy’s life when he has a raging desire to go somewhere and dig for hidden treasure.” – The Adventures of Tom Sawyer

I kept my eye on Tom’s antics and looked for any way we could simulate his adventurous spirit in the narrow basement classroom where we meet each week. Our options were very limited, but that didn’t stop us! One chilly day in the middle of February, the students worked together to escape through the windows. They helped each other up and out of the narrow openings, tromped through the snow back into the classroom. When they returned, their cheeks were rosy and their spirits were high. That simple little escapade primed the for a thoughtful discussion about adventure.

What’s so great about adventure? 

They could answer this question because they could still feel their blood pumping.

When Tom whistles, take a whistling break.

When he does gymnastics, see if anyone will imitate his antics

When he eats an apple, eat an apple.

Hold a memory-verse competition, dig for treasure, take a field trip to a cave.

Talk about the countless superstitions. How are they similar to our own superstitions?

Appreciate Twain’s powerful use of satire. Then, take a look at some modern-day satire (try The Babylon Bee) and try your hand at writing some satire of your own.

Keep a Tom Sawyer Trading Bag

Viv suggested that the students keep a trading bag with “Tom Sawyer-esque treasures” to trade with one another and it ended up being a fun addition to the class. Students kept stashes of marbles, corks, toothpicks, and licorice. I kept a stash, too – including a disinfected chicken bone – and let the students riffle through it now and then.

This all came about early in the book when we read an irresistible and poetic description of the treasures that Tom Sawyer has traded with his friends.

And when the middle of the afternoon came, from being a poor poverty-stricken boy in the morning Tom was literally rolling in wealth. He had, besides the things I have mentioned, twelve marbles, part of a jew’s harp, a piece of blue bottle-glass to look through, a spool-cannon, a key that wouldn’t unlock anything, a fragment of chalk, a glass stopper of a decanter, a tin soldier, a couple of tadpoles, six fire-crackers, a kitten with only one eye, a brass door-knob, a dog-collar – but no dog – the handle of a knife, four pieces of orange-peel, and a dilapidated old window sash.”

The book is full of intriguing knick-knacks that fill the boys’ pockets and that come in handy in almost any circumstances. So, with explicit rules about one-eye kittens and fire-crackers, we joined Tom Sawyer in his collecting of treasure.

Read aloud.

Twain wrote in the vernacular, which means he gives his characters authentic expressions and accents that may be difficult for your students to read at first. We listened to the first chapter on a top-class audio recording so we could jump right into the story without being turned off by the difficulty of unfamiliar language.

Throughout our meetings, we would often listen to scenes from the audiobook.

One week, we wanted to practice using the vernacular ourselves so we listened to the scene first, then divided into groups and read the scene aloud. After practice, we shared the scene with one another, appreciating the difficulty of really sounding like a character from that place and time.

Keep a commonplace book.

Encourage each student to jot down favorite quotations each week. Some students will copy the humorous tidbits, others will copy the descriptive writing, still others will copy the life lessons. These commonplace excerpts are a great way to spark conversation.

Simply ask, “What did you write in your commonplace book?” and let the conversation evolve from there.

Be sure to keep a commonplace book, too! Your students will want to know what catches your eye.

Enjoy conversations about the book.

Sit back and guide the students with a few good conversation starters.

What did your students like?

What made them laugh?

What made them shiver? (Believe me, there is plenty of shivering in Tom Sawyer.)

I am a Read-Aloud Revival fan, so I use Sarah Mackenzie’s helpful questions to prompt conversation. In her newly released Read-Aloud Family, Sarah provides 10 poignant questions that you can ask about any book and expect to connect with your student. I stick with these and am never disappointed. (Amusingly, the one question that you can apply to every chapter of Tom Sawyer is “Should he have done that?”)

Try Reader’s Theatre.

To introduce my students to reader’s theatre, I distributed the script from Chapter 2 – the famous whitewashing scene. I divided them into groups and let them practice. They loved sharing their scenes with the class. Then, in small groups, they  took responsibility for transforming a scene from Tom Sawyer into their own reader’s theatre script. They included sound affects and shared their performances with an audience of peers and parents. For the performance, we just lined 5 stools across the front and they read the scripts as if they were on radio.

Several of them have been asking to do it again and again! I think reader’s theatre helped them to step into the story, without the pressure of memorizing lines or blocking.


What about the racial issues?

The difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter – it’s the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning.” – Mark Twain

It’s no secret that Twain’s portrayal of racism in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn presents difficulty to educators.  Some educators opt out of the novels. Others look for revised editions that modify some of the racial words. You will have to choose how to address this topic with your students.

Here’s how I approached it: I asked the students to copy Twain’s quote (above). I told them that Twain carefully chose his words in an effort to speak out against racism.  He lived in the South in the 1800’s when there was more racial tension – and infinitely more inequality – than there is today in America.

Mark Twain was undoubtedly anti-racist.

In both Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, Twain intentionally wrote about the racist outlook of the 1800’s because he strongly opposed it. (Did you know that Twain was friends with African American educator Booker T Washington, he co-chaired the 1906 Silver Jubilee fundraiser at Carnegie Hall for the Tuskegee Institute – a school run by Washington in Alabama to further “the intellectual and moral and religious life of the [African American] people”. He also personally helped fund one of Yale Law School’s first African American students, explaining: “We have ground the manhood out of them [African Americans], and the shame is ours, not theirs, and we should pay for it.”)

In his writing, Twain chose to use the vernacular – including words like “nigger”, “injun”, and “half-breed” – so that we could hear the characters exactly as they were. He wants us to examine a community of people and be able to to identify the racism, the ignorance, and the hatred. He wants us to be smart, discerning, and gracious.

Here’s how I chose to approach it:

I chose to lead the students through the classic The Adventures of Tom Sawyer as Mark Twain wrote it. Before we read the inflammatory words and descriptions, I prepare the students. I tell them that these are serious and powerful words and attitudes that were present in the  in our society.  I tell my students that Mark Twain is trusting us with these words – that I, their parents, and God are trusting them with these words.

I ask, Will you see these words for what they are: a window to the soul of a society that dehumanized people who were made by God and in God’s image?

Will you handle them wisely?

Or, will you use these words – and others like them – to put people down?

I hope that each one of us handles these words wisely and lovingly.

I hope that this sparked your imagination for ways you can invite some students to join you in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer! You’ll have a wonderful time together.

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