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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. 


Amazing ideas for teaching in January 2009

January 2009 has a different feel about it compared to most Januarys, doesn't it?  A new President with immense historical significance will be sworn in a day after we honor what would have been the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s  80th birthday. And despite the ongoing pessimism about our economic forecast as a country, a stronger feeling of renewed optomism permeates communities all across America. I just couldn't imagine a more poignant month to be a teacher! 

I searched around and found two great activities that we all should consider for this very historical month.  Connected to history, poetry, great speeches, and financial literacy, these activities hit the mark with signifying to students that they are living during an incredible period in US History.

Continue reading "Amazing ideas for teaching in January 2009" »

Assessing reading comprehension using photos

Teachers across content areas all struggle with addressing the varied levels of reading comprehension among their students.  Science, history, and arts classes are so highly text-embedded, yet the curriculum doesn't fully address what to do with struggling to advanced readers of those subjects. 

English teachers have a host of strategies to gauge reading comprehension and one that I find works great across content areas has to do with using photos.

Here is a quick example of how all teachers can use photographs or other images to formatively assess students in reading comprehension- in particular, heavily tested informational/expository text:

Continue reading "Assessing reading comprehension using photos" »

The 3 most important words to teach students in grades 7-12

I have the awesome fortune to work with extremely collaborative teachers across multiple content areas.  The other day, I was working with a science teacher on beefing up a writing assignment in her class that challenged students to use critical thinking skills when reading an article and transferring their thoughts into a position paper.  Her frustration was that students generally read articles, etc. in her class for content, not purpose.

This is a common concern for many teachers in every content area of adolescents and teens.  How do you get students to dig deeper into gathering meaning and purpose of text?  This is, after all,  the key to higher order thinking, and the premise for what they are often tested on in standardized tests.

There are three words that all students need to know and use each time they read.  With these three words, all text is made more meaningful- more purposeful.  Ready for them?  Wait for it...


Working with students who struggle with reading and writing, I make it a point to teach these three words at the onset of the school year.  I start off with defining the words:




Armed with these clear and undertandable definitions, students are asked to ANALYZE my classroom while it is still new to them.  They travel in pairs, sharing their observations, verbally at first, then in writing.

Once they've made one go-around, I ask them to make judgements on what they observed- EVALUATE their observations: Did they like or dislike something?  Why was something arranged in a particular order?  What is the purpose behind what they saw on the walls or in/on other parts of the room?  Once again, partners shared responses, verbally at first, then in writing.

Lastly, once students returned to their seats, I asked them to write about what they saw (analyzed) and what they thought about it (evaluated) by DESCRIBING their thoughts in a short paragragh. 


We practice this several times by traveling around campus (great way to introduce Freshmen to the school!)

The next step is transferring this skill to reading text and writing about it.  I start of with an article, then short story.  It is always neat to see the confidence students develop with this process.  Each student eventually shares the process of analyzing and evaluating the text out loud and reads their descriptions or findings.

Armed with these highly valuable academic vocabulary words, students feel they can tackle any text!

For more infomation on teaching academic vocabulary visit these websites:

Word lists and lesson plans for every grade level:


Cool games to teach academic vocab:


Great e-presentation of how to teach academic vocabulary!


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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.