I don't believe there is a right way to teach about Dr. King. In the 13 years when I was in front of a classroom, each lesson, unit, discussion, and activity manifested differently based on the students in the room. Children bring different background knowledge, ideas, life experiences, and understandings to every single lesson we put in front of them. No two years and no two lessons looked or sounded the same.
The one commonality is that each year, as a collective group, we tried to come to an understanding of Dr. King's message, of his lasting impact, and of why his work is not yet done. Many times, the discussions ended with the notions of, Will his work ever be done? and What can we do about it?
Despite every year looking and sounding different in the classroom, I did always share either a part of Dr. King's I Have a Dream Speech or the entire speech and transcript. My favorite activity was with my two fifth grade classes in 2013 and 2014. We both read and listened to Dr. King's speech, and pulled out the quotes we felt were either the most powerful or had the biggest impact on us personally. I wish I saved samples of student writing from these activities. While I can't share my students' ideas, I can share my thoughts and the most powerful quote from the speech in my mind. Both years, I shared the following with my fifth grade students:
I have a dream that one day my four little children
will live in a nation where they will not be judged by the
color of their skin, but by the content of their character.
I'm still holding out hope that Dr. King's dream will become a reality one day. I'm holding out hope that all children will be judged by things that matter and not the color of their skin. We've made great progress in many areas. Sadly, we've taken giant leaps backwards in others. My heart breaks when I think about what some of my former students are now facing as young adults navigating the world. My heart breaks to think that some of the 8 year-olds I taught how to read so many years ago are now teenagers and young 20-somethings facing unfair judgement- facing discrimination. My heart simply breaks.
I'm trying to do my part to make things better, but am burdened by the fact that what I'm doing just isn't enough. So, here I am, delivering the message from a computer instead of in front of 24 children. It just doesn't feel the same.
My hope is that every teacher, in every classroom, in our country is sharing the words and ideas of Dr. King. It is my bigger hope that they are asking their students to think about these words and ideas, and then encouraging them make applications to their own lives and their own world. Again, there is no right way to do it. The right way is just opening the door for conversation. That will look and sound different in every classroom.
I know I will be back in front of a group of children one day spreading Dr. King's message. Until then, continue to spread the good word, my friends.
Recommended Children's Books
Martin's Big Words by Doreen Rappaport and Brian Collier
My Brother Martin: A Sister Remembers… by Christine King Farris and Chris Soentpiet
Multimedia Resources & Primary Sources
I Have Dream Speech on YouTube
Freedom's Ring "I have a Dream" speech text, audio, and interpretation from Stanford University
Featured Documents from Stanford's Martin Luther King Jr. Research and Education Institute
Official Program for The March on Washington, August 28, 1963
The Speeches of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr from NPR
10 Songs Honoring Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. from Billboard