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Frederick Douglass's Enduring Impact

"Once you learn to read, you will forever be free"

As a reading and writing teacher, I have always wished for a magic potion to give to my students that would immediately illuminate the power and necessity of growing as a reader on their lives.  The closest I have come to that magic potion are the words of Frederick Douglass from his powerful Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass.

I am sure that if he were alive today and acted with an ounce of courage and dignity that he did in his time, there would be no doubt that he’d be revered worldwide as the most influential person for most people on the planet.  It’s with this in mind that I recently turned to his words and ideas to convince my 9th graders that power- whichever type of power they sought- lies in their ability to read and write.

I’ve got a big problem, though.  Most of my students feel that they are already “literate enough”.  Competing with social networking and video gaming, my reading and reflection assignments designed to increase independent reading habits loses nearly every time.

So- I posed this question to kids:
What would you do if you weren’t allowed to read?

WOOOOO HOOOOOO!!! is the general response.

But, I interject, that means, NO reading AT ALL- no text messaging, no email, no guitar hero (no reading the lyrics), no shopping (no reading price tags), no working for a paycheck, no driving (reading signs on the interstate), no trashy teen mags, nothing- nada.

It gets a little quieter then.  I find time to hook ‘em into my world.

We time warp back to America, circa 1830’s.  We discuss what we already know- how smaller the country was, how technology was as complex as a horse and buggy, and how unless you were a white male, you were a slave in some sense.

Quieter yet- slavery- never a fun topic to jump into.

Talking about slaves who became famous for bravery and for never giving up hope of emancipation and equality I steer them towards Frederick Douglass.

Born into slavery in 1818, rumored to be the son of his master, Aaron Anthony, he was “fortunate” to have been sold to Hugh and Sofia Auld at age 8 after his mother dies.  Sofia Auld teaches Douglass how to read until Hugh Auld instructs Sofia to stop, fearing that educating slaves, particularly in learning to read, leads slaves to rebellion.

We stop there.  Why would learning to read be a threat to slave owners?  Power would be a threat to slave owners- using some geometry theorem (can’t remember) we make the connection that reading=power.

A few “Aha’s”.  Still not enough to satisfy.

I hand out a gift to each kid, rolled up and wrapped with ribbons and a gift tag from me.  It’s chapter seven of Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave.   I start a shared reading of it, and assign a short guided reading with a “suggestion” for independently reading the rest before the next class meeting for discussion.

One day passed and I began to build up defenses in case students did not dare pick up and read my gift of text.  Then, during lunch, a student popped into my room asking if I had another copy of what I gave his friend to read in my class.  Apparently, there was growing discussion of the power described by Mr. Douglass among my students.

My heart sings at the thought of their new found freedom.  Thank you, Mr. Douglass. 



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Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in Inside Patty's High School Grade Classroom are strictly those of the author and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Scholastic, Inc.