My generation celebrated MLK Day every year, usually all month long. He was a hero and his sacrifice touched my young heart in profound ways that have helped shape who I am today. Here are some ways kids can celebrate in the classroom today:
King certainly had a big dream, and one that is being fulfilled today. We often ask children what they want to be when they grow up. In honor of King, instead ask them what their dreams are – the bigger the better. Have them draw and tell stories to each other and the class. They can make collages with old magazines, or a Dream Mobile .
Explain segregation of schools and public life in simple terms. (Rosa Parks is a good example without being too graphic.) Young kids are often dumbfounded that segregation was an even an issue. Play or read a few paragraphs from the “I Have a Dream” speech , including the part about “…one day… little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers”. Explain how, at one time, King’s dream seemed impossible, but they are living proof of his vision. Since King’s dreams were realized, emphasize that their dreams can also come true.
At this age, kids can handle some of the more violent details surrounding the Civil Rights movement. Choose some background information about the peaceful assembly of blacks across the south, and how that peace was met with brutality by the authorities and whites. Cite examples of some of the violence , like the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing that killed four young black girls.
The “I Have a Dream Speech” speech falls in line with the new, nationally recognized Common Core Standards for teaching. Have your students take turns reading it in class, and discuss what kind of argument King was making. Break the speech down. What kind of appeals does King make? Was it entirely emotional? (For example: What truths of our constitution was he upholding as self-evident?) Were there parts of the speech that confused any of the students? Play the televised speech in front of the Washington Monument. Do your students notice anything surprising? (Are there only black people who have marched on Washington?) Give your students some quiet time to journal their feelings and emotions.
Most students in this age range know quite a lot about this subject already. Reinforce that this history is not merely “Black History”, but their own history, as well. Have them make connections to current Civil Rights movements, such as the struggle of migrant workers in America, marriage equality, women’s rights, etc. An essay and/or PowerPoint presentation would be appropriate for your students to create and present to the class. Ask them “How would you teach Civil Rights to a class?”
Make sure they get a timeline of important dates for the Civil Rights movement , focusing on dates that the constitution was amended to end segregation. Offer extra credit to students for attending local ceremonies that celebrate King’s life and honor the sacrifice of his death, or better yet, to create their own celebrations on campus.