We all know that Martin Luther King, Jr. Day is a federal holiday when schools and businesses are closed. As parents and educators, how can we impress upon kids the crucial history what the day commemorates? We’ll cover some basics of the who, what, and why that you can cover at home and in learning environments.
Getting to know Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Who was he?
Martin Luther King, Jr. was a civil rights activist and American social justice pioneer. He was born on January 15, 1929 in Atlanta, Georgia. A Baptist minister, King rose to prominence between the 50s and 60s with his non-violent opposition to the deeply segregationist history which entrenched the South. What kids can certainly connect with is King’s peaceful approach and compassion for his fellow humans.
Dr. King had been married to his wife, Coretta Scott King for about 15 years at the time of his death when he was assassinated by escaped fugitive, James Early Ray. Ray, who we won’t give much more space to, received a 99 year prison sentence for the murder. Martin Luther King’s wife and children have carried on Dr. King’s legacy by leading the charge for racial equality and social justice.
In order to optimize our understanding of what Dr. King represents, we must further explore and enhance our knowledge of civil rights. Try asking your kids what they think of when they hear “civil rights”? Depending on what they have experienced in their background and education, they always have interesting responses to defining the term. Some great resources for exploring civil rights are through Teaching for Change and The King Institute of Stanford.
The basics of civil rights are clear to students of all ages, even my first grader. I love what he has come home from school having learned from his teachers regarding equality and social justice. Understanding that all peoples of our country are considered equal under the Constitution and cannot be discriminated against seems pretty cut and dry. However, we know that isn’t and hasn’t always been the case. Civil rights aim to cast a light on the evolving nature of seeing all citizens treated with equality.
Understanding Dr. King’s achievements
Martin Luther King remains a pillar of America’s rich history and a leader of sparking change. What comes to mind when we think of what he accomplished in his lifetime? How many things can you name attributed to him? According to the King Institute, his most notable achievements include The Montgomery Bus Boycott in 1955 and The March on Washington in 1963. In 1964, Dr. King became the youngest person to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize!
Why do we observe Martin Luther King, Jr. Day?
The actual date of the federal holiday varies from year to year on the 3rd Monday of January, which generally falls near to King’s birthday of January 15th. The observance of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day was signed into effect as a federal holiday by President Ronald Reagan in November 1983 which was about 15 years after King’s death. It is really interesting to visit the Ronald Reagan Library and Museum’s website. Here you can actually view the entire transcript o the speech Reagan delivered when signing the bill to make the holiday official. Something we can share with children of all ages is the following selection from Reagan’s speech regarding Dr. King, “In his own life’s example, he symbolized what was right about America, what was noblest and best, what human beings have pursued since the beginning of history”.
Teaching our children about Dr. Martin Luther King
There is no end to the ways we can teach our children about the importance of Dr. King’s accomplishments and impact on the history of America. Let’s explore some opportunities for your families and classrooms to engage in and and share the teachings of Dr. King across the age levels.
Beginning with reading, I perused my library collection and some great equity, diversity and inclusion book lists for ideas. I was especially looking for material to share with my youngest child who is 3 and other children of her age. Some amazing titles I discovered for younger children are My Brother Martin by Christine King Farris, or Brad Meltzer’s I am Brave: A Little Book About Martin Luther King. Jr. Scholastic has a brilliant and comprehensive book list of suggested reading titles for families and classes that are great for younger readers. For older readers ages 10 and up, try this Scholastic list.
There are so many amazing films documenting Dr. King’s life and achievements. Depending on the age level of your children and students, make sure to review age appropriateness ahead of time. Common Sense Media is a great way to glean information on content reviews before sitting down to watch TV shows or movies. I would recommend 2014’s Selma which is available on Amazon Prime and King in the Wilderness on HBO Max for older kids and families.
Our team put together some amazing activities that your family and students can do to observe and reflect on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. Explore the themes of equality, freedom, justice and peace. What does that mean to you? In keeping with the focus of King’s most famous speech, I Have a Dream, reflect on what your hopes and dreams are and share them with one another. What are your hopes and dreams for yourself as an individual, but also what are your hopes and dreams for your fellow neighbor and citizens of the world?
What can you do?
- Perhaps my favorite activity is the I Have A Dream cloud project. This activity allows children to think about people other than themselves and what they hope to see available to them. These clouds showcase each child’s unique artistic contribution and display beautifully!
- The MLK, Jr. Character Trait Web allows children to think about Martin Luther King, Jr. as a real person, not a fictionalized hero from a book. What made him human, what defined him as a person and social justice warrior?
- Explore further the traits attributed to Martin Luther King, Jr. but examining now only WHO he was as a person, but also the WORDS he spoke and his physical ACTIONS in this Character Chart.
- To follow up any reading or films watched, share this KWL Chart with your students. It allows them to breakdown what they already KNOW, what they WONDER and what they LEARNED. Have students work on these individually, then move into small groups and find commonalities and differences in their responses.
- Lastly, it is important for students to demonstrate comprehension and understanding of King’s words. The responses will vary by age level but cover the following: Equality, Friendship, Freedom, Justice, and Peace.
Take time this coming Monday to reflect on the life and contributions of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. It isn’t just a day to sleep in and be off of school or work. Take a moment to appreciate the incredible contributions of the fight for freedom of all American peoples led by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. We hope that these suggestions and activities inspire creativity in your homes and classrooms!
Courtney is an MTT tutor, academic coach, and blog contributor for MTTES. If you check out our FB and Instagram pages, you might see her giving a storytime with her son Jack through the company’s Facebook Live service. Courtney’s love of the English language, learning, and creative writing inspired her to contribute relevant content to teachers, tutors, parents, and homeschoolers seeking support across an array of trending topics. She and her teacher husband have two small children and reside in Baltimore, MD.