As we approach the national holiday honoring the life and work of Dr. King, many educators are thinking about ways to recognize him in their classrooms. Too often, such work results in oversimplified, canned narratives about Dr. King and the Civil Rights Movement. I ask that we reject this approach. This year, let’s vow to help our students develop a more nuanced understanding of the life of this incredible man and the movement that continues to drive the moral compass of our country. Here are a few suggestions:
- Read Dr. King’s “I Have A Dream” speech. All of it. Not just the last two pages that begin with the iconic words “I have a dream.” Why? First, this speech is known as one of the greatest speeches of all time. Students won’t understand why if they only ever read part of it out of context. Second, it is the context that students need to begin to understand life during this time period for African-Americans. When we remove the social, economic, and political context from Dr. King’s work, we contribute to the creation of the oversimplified narrative about Dr. King as the hopeful hero who healed our nation. Use a graphic organizer, like the one below, to help students unpack the harsh realities for African-Americans in the United States spotlighted by Dr. King in this monumental speech.
- Study Dr. King’s craft – Dr. King was an incredible writer. Plan a unit around noting his wonderful way with words that involves examining several of his speeches. As a master wordsmith, Dr. King used plenty of rich vocabulary words that we can teach from all year! Looking to teach similes and metaphors? Invite students to identify figurative language in Dr. King’s writing and try their hand at such craft in their own work. Also, ask students to think about the importance of such craft and the influence it has on others. There’s a reason why we quote some writers, like Dr. King, and not others!
- Challenge students to research five things they’d bet their peers didn’t know about Dr. King and to share their findings. For example, what criteria did Dr. King meet to be nominated and selected as a Nobel Peace Prize winner? What was his position on the Vietnam War and why? How did the nation react to his views?
- Create a t-chart. On one side, invite students to list all of the ways Dr. King would be satisfied if he were alive today. On the other side, ask students to brainstorm what Dr. King might work to change in our society if he were alive today.
- Discuss the meaning of activism and the characteristics of leadership. Help students see that they too, like Dr. King, can be leaders who stand up and speak out against injustices in their world. Ask students to identify some of the issues that concern them in their school, community, and in the world. What can they do to bring about change? Remind them that such work is not always about grand gestures and projects. It’s the small actions that often matter most.
Dr. King worked tirelessly to unveil institutional racism and injustices that touched every facet of our country. He tried and failed a lot. He was not magical. He was a man who had fears and frustrations about the world he lived in and about the future. This year, let us honor Dr. King and his work by helping students recognize injustices. Let’s spotlight Dr. King’s life so that students recognize that hard work, dedication, and persistence are required to bring about systematic changes. Let’s help students see that our work toward equality and justice is not over. Mostly, let’s implore our students to see themselves as an integral part of keeping Dr. King’s dream alive.