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In the Classroom > Picturing America Lessons

Ladders in Art and Literature

Lesson created by: Nancy Henderson

Grade Level: 8


20-B Martin Puryear, Ladder for Booker T. Washington, 1996.

Ladder for Booker T. Washington

Martin Puryear(1941–), Ladder for Booker T. Washington, 1996. Wood (ash and maple), 432 x 22 3/4 in., narrowing at the top to 1 1/4 x 3 in. (1097.28 x 57.785.cm., narrowing to 3.175 x 7.6 cm.).Collection of the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, Gift of Ruth Carter Stevenson, by Exchange.


  • Students will understand that the history of civil rights is both long and complex, with ideas intertwining, growing and becoming increasingly powerful over time.

Focusing Statement

Today we are continuing our study of the history of civil rights in America. Having read Frederick Douglass's Narrative, we are now going to look at Martin Puryear's work "Ladder for Booker T. Washington", 1996.

Background Information

Students will have read "The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass" by himself and will understand the value of literacy and education to Douglass before they see this installation. Douglass describes being tortured by learning to read as "reading informed me about the pit of slavery, but provided no ladder by which to climb out." Literacy, obtained illegally by Douglass, was his window to freedom as it showed him that freedom was a possibility for him, but at the same time, his getting that freedom was not in the reading; he had to do that himself. Students will read excerpts from Booker T. Washington's biography Up From Slavery and will contrast Washington's beliefs on the role of education for African-Americans with those of his contemporary W.E.B. DuBois.

Puryear's work of art provides an image of a ladder, but a tenuous one. Students will have the opportunity to examine what about 1996, gives the artist the impetus for this ladder, 140 years after Washington's birth year, about one hundred and fifty years after Douglass published his narrative.

Examining Expressive Content

  • What do you see when you first look at this piece?
  • Do you see anything different when you look closely at the installation?
  • Is there anything in this installation that makes you think about Frederick Douglass?
  • Watch this video. How do you see this art installation after seeing this video? What does the video add to your experience as a viewer?

Teaching Plan

  1. Students will read "The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass" and excerpts from Booker T. Washington's biography.
  2. Students will have watched sections about The March on Birmingham from "Eyes on the Prize."
  3. Students will read "Letter from Birmingham Jail" after they have seen this painting.

Putting It All Together

Why do you think that Martin Puryear called his installation "Ladder for Booker T. Washington"? Why do you think Puryear would have created this artwork 1996, when Booker T. Washington has been dead for many years?


Massachusetts Curriculum Framework for English Language Arts & Literacy

  • Standard 8: Understanding a Text
  • Standard 9: Making Connections
  • Students will pose questions, listen to the ideas of others, and contribute their own information or ideas in group discussions or interviews in order to acquire new knowledge.
  • Students will make oral presentations that demonstrate appropriate consideration of audience, purpose, and the information to be conveyed.
  • Students will understand and acquire new vocabulary and use it correctly in reading and writing.
  • Students will describe, analyze, and use appropriately formal and informal English.
  • Students will identify the basic facts and main ideas in a text and use them as the basis for interpretation.
  • Students will deepen their understanding of a literary or non-literary work by relating it to its contemporary context or historical background.

Common Core Standards

English Language Arts Standards » History/Social Studies » Grade 6-8
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RH.6-8.7 Integrate visual information (e.g., in charts, graphs, photographs, videos, or maps) with other information in print and digital texts.
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RH.6-8.9 Analyze the relationship between a primary and secondary source on the same topic.

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