The Big Read

The Big Read is currently underway!  Readers on Mount Desert Island, Frenchboro, Swans Island, Little Cranberry Island, Deer Isle, Stonington, and Isle au Haut have picked up their copies of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain and have participated in community-wide programs throughout the past month, thanks to a grant from the National Endowment of the Arts awarded to partner organizations Island Readers & Writers and the Northeast Harbor Library.  The Abbe Museum has jumped on board for the fun, and Raney Bench, Curator of Education, has organized numerous public programs and events facilitating discussions of stereotyping surrounding the characterization of Native Americans in Twain's books.  In The Adventures of Tom Sawyer these stereotypes are revealed through the portrayal of Injun Joe and his interactions with Tom and Huck.

As part of The Big Read, Raney has discussed these topics with both adults and children.  She ran a program in Deer Isle for approximately 90 schoolchildren representing the third, fourth, and fifth grades.  The stereotyping program for children this age begins with an activity designed to help create a safe learning environment in which stereotypes, a sometimes difficult topic, can be comfortably explored.  The children are asked to share words that they have heard in association with Indians, and assured that by sharing these words it does not imply that they believe those ideas.  The kids are generally shy at first and quickly warm up, filling a whiteboard with these terms.  After a large list has been generated, the children walk though those stereotypes identifying which are positive, negative, and neutral as Raney simultaneously breaks the ideas down to dispel myths.  At the end of the exercise, the children come to the conclusion that all stereotypes -- positive, negative and neutral -- are harmful because they prevent the ability to understand someone as an individual.  After the  exercise, students looked at the characterization of Indians in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, specifically Injun Joe, and discussed how Twain's bias towards Indians is reflected in his writings.  These ideas were used as a base from which students then explored how life in Maine was different from Twain's stereotypes, looking closely at the interactions between Native and non-Native people.

A similar program will be presented later this month to a slightly older audience.  Raney Bench will again travel to Deer Isle to present to the sixth, seventh, and eighth graders, and will this time be accompanied by historian and Abbe Museum Trustee, Bill Haviland.  Raney will begin this program by presenting the notions people held about Indians at the time of Tom Sawyer's publication at the national level, including ideas that Indians were noble, savage, and a dying race.  The Adventures of Tom Sawyer will be used as a platform to discuss how Mark Twain, as a contemporary of that time, represented his bias through his writings.  Bill Haviland will then contrast those ideas with the relationship between the Wabanaki and other Mainers at that time, to illustrate the differences between the east and west.  The perception of a frontier, the wild west, and the time period of Indian removal is also the era of the Abbe's blockbuster exhibit Indians & Rusticators, and together Raney & Bill will illustrate some of this local and national history.

College-aged students have also benefited from The Big Read programs, as Jan Coates, Director of Island Readers & Writers, and Raney Bench teamed up to present to students at College of the Atlantic.  This presentation, made to a group of future-teachers, focused on how informal education partners can enhance learning for students.  Raney and Jan used the model of The Big Read to illustrate opportunities for schools to link with various non-profit organizations in an effort to offer creative program initiatives.

If you are an adult wishing you had the opportunity to participate in these exciting programs then have no fear...If you haven't joined The Big Read yet, there is still time!  A full calendar of programs can be found at the Island Readers & Writers website, and the Abbe Museum will be hosting these upcoming events, discussing the era of Mark Twain and the characterization of Native Americans during these programs:

Sunday, February 5, 2:00-3:30
Exhibit Tour of Indians & RusticatorsFriday, February 10, 6:00-7:30
A Closer Look at Injun Joe