The older I get the more I admire Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
In recent years his words have lingered in my mind and heart. Words like,
“Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.”
“Not everybody can be famous but everybody can be great, because greatness is determined by service.”
These are powerful truths. These are the kind of words that can set a positive course for daily life.
Just this week I read that Dr. King was 39 when he was shot and killed. It shocked me; that is my current age. What a tragic loss.
As a child I learned about Dr. King in a historical sense. He was brave. He gave powerful speeches. He led a march on Washington, DC. He stood up for the rights of African Americans (and all people victimized by discrimination) and preached nonviolence. He was instrumental in getting the Civil Rights Act passed in 1964. He was assassinated in 1968.
These were the facts. We learned them and quickly completed some sort of activity before moving on to other topics. But there was something missing.
The real goal of our “MLK Day Lessons” should be just as much about passing on his message as passing on his history. I think he would want that very much. It’s fine to have kids write their own dreams, and summarize his life inside a foldable portrait project, but if they only learn about Dr. King and not from Dr. King, we’ve missed the most powerful part of his legacy.
So, I worked with my son’s wonderful teacher, Mrs. Greenman (interview with her coming soon!), and we taught a lesson that tried to get a little closer to the point. Actually, it was four lessons completed in four separate 30-45 minute blocks of time:
1- How to paint skin colors. I knew that we would be creating artwork to anchor our thinking about Dr. King and I wanted the skin tones to look authentic. Besides learning how to mix our paints, we were also learning that skin colors are simply a matter of different mixes of pigmentation and aren’t a real qualifier for anything important. (Like whom you should choose as a friend, or play with at recess, or sit next to at lunch.)
2- Who was Dr. King and what did he teach and do? Mrs. Greenman shared the book, Martin’s Big Words, with her class. It’s a beautiful, well-written book and does a fine job hitting the important parts of his story. It was also a good choice for us because it emphasized the idea of his “big words” which was the focus of the next lesson…
3- Dr. King’s Big Words- During this lesson we shared some of his famous quotes with the children. (Scroll down to download a free copy of the quote set.) We talked with them about what the quotes mean today and how we can live them out in our daily lives. I was a little worried about this lesson because some of Dr. King’s quotes capture very “big” ideas. I wondered if it would be too much for the 1st graders. But they did just fine. It took a lot of discussion (we used the “turn and talk with your elbow partner” technique to raise the level of active engagement.) The children were able to verbalize what “service” or “refusing to remain silent at the sight of injustice” would look like in 1st grade. We brainstormed concrete things people could actually do to make Dr. King’s “big words” a reality.
(*Note: If 1st graders could grasp these concepts on a basic level, I would imagine that you could have a very powerful discussion with older children.)
The next step was for them to sign up to illustrate the deeper meaning of one of his quotes. For example, if they wanted to illustrate the quote about service (stated above) then they had to think of something they could draw that would illustrate someone serving others. We had them turn to their “elbow partners” one final time and say aloud what they were planning to draw, just to be sure they had a clear idea in mind before heading to the desks. I told them that if they weren’t sure, they should remain on the carpet and touch base with me. That technique works well to be sure that all the children have a solid plan in mind before they start working.
They drew their pictures with fat Sharpie markers (fine point tip) and then used watercolors to fill in the color. Many of them wanted to keep their “color formula” sheets on hand (from the skin tone lesson.) I loved seeing them refer back to those formula sheets!
4) The final lesson was a writing lesson during which we used our artwork as the inspiration for our writing.
Considering the current length of this post, I’d better come back tomorrow to share the final lesson: Writing about Dr. King’s Big Words.
PS- Would you like a copy of the quotes we used? I didn’t make them fancy- they are just black and white text on horizontal pages. They look nice matted on black construction paper. Click the image below for a FREE download!