By Teachers, For Teachers
The name of Martin Luther King, Jr. stands for freedom, justice, and equality. But how much do students know about the man behind the name? How did he come to be such a powerful symbol and a nationally revered figure? We can take advantage of the day dedicated to him – the third Monday of January – and focus students’ attention toward the wealth of contributions he has made. Here are some recommendations for how to do just that:
1. The “I Have a Dream” speech video. Watch the speech from YouTube.com in whole or in part with your class. Have a conversation with students about what he said. You can also focus on the historical context of the speech, his technique in delivering it, or even analyze the specific rhetoric he uses to make it effective.
2. Read “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” This open letter written as a response to a number of questions regarding Dr. King’s movement and commitment to non-violence provides a thorough summary of his perspective. Read this with students, and hold a conversation about his ideas, his style, and the types of questions that are raised by Dr. King’s opposition.
3. Civil disobedience. Just what is passive resistance, civil disobedience, and non-violent protest? These unexpectedly powerful forms of subversion are at the core of Dr. King’s civil rights movement. Explore these philosophies and techniques with students, and compare them to other forms of protest and rebellion.
4. Assassination. Dr. King was assassinated on April 4, 1968, in Memphis. Have students investigate who assassinated him and how it was done. Then, consider with them why individuals are assassinated and what effect it can have on others.
5. Make speeches of their own. Dr. King was an incredible public speaker. Have students listen to any of his public addresses, and then write and perform speeches of their own that address issues that are important to them.
6. Lasting legacy. Dr. King died over 45 years ago -- but do the effects of his life still last until today? What did Dr. King stand for and accomplish in his lifetime, and in what ways might his efforts still be at work among our society?
7. Compare Dr. King to others. Although he was an incredible figure, he wasn’t alone in his efforts or approach to civil rights. Have students investigate other historical figures, including Henry David Thoreau, Mahatma Ghandi, Nelson Mandela and Malcolm X. Are there any individuals alive today who embody and apply Dr. King’s principles?
8. History of MLK Day. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day is officially celebrated on the third Monday in January, which is near his birthday on January 15. Why do we have a national holiday devoted to him? Why do we usually have no school on this day? Investigate the history and meaning of this unique holiday.
9. The American Dream for today. Dr. King had a dream of his own. But what is our American Dream for today? Is it the same as his or has it changed in some ways? Ask students to think about their own dreams and values, and to consider those of society. Have students talk about and write and record their own “I Have a Dream” speech video.
10. Racism and race division today. After all the conflicts and efforts of the civil rights movement, where do we stand today? Ask students to look into news stories, opinion articles, demographic research, and personal experiences to discuss where America stands on race relations, segregation, civil rights, and other elements Dr. King fought for during his lifetime.
We only have one day throughout the year dedicated to Martin Luther King, Jr. But instead of simply allowing this to be another holiday that students enjoy a day off of school, we can take advantage this unique day and use it to inspire our students to witness the power of an individual’s contribution to the world around him.
How do you recognize Martin Luther King, Jr. in your classroom? Take a moment to share with us your MLK ideas or plans in the comments below!
Jordan Catapano is an English teacher at Conant High School in a Chicago suburb. In addition to being National Board Certificated, he also sits as the District Leader for the Illinois Association of Teachers of English and serves as a school board member for a private school. You can follow him on Twitter at @BuffEnglish, or visit his website ACTWritingTips.com.