Thursday, January 14, 2010

Celebrating The Life Of Martin Luther King, Jr.

“. . . the arc of moral history is long, but it bends toward justice.” – MLK

Celebrating Martin Luther King, Jr. Day is different in our school than is celebrating most other holidays in that I have to “force” it into the curriculum. Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas, Valentine’s Day, these holidays show up at school whether I want them to or not, and the children are largely in charge of how we celebrate, but when it comes to MLK I take the reins.

Even yesterday, after two days of discussion, I had to call on a half dozen hands before Ella remembered that the next holiday was “the King Day,” not Valentine’s Day. Jack had been on the right track when he guessed, “George Lincoln’s birthday,” knowing that it had something to do with one of our great historical figures, and it was gratifying to me that he was thinking of MLK in the same category as George Washington and Abraham Lincoln. We’ve talked and read about the historical facts. We’ve introduced the concept of slavery, a notion that shocks them. We talk about the marches, the speeches, and even touch on the violence and imprisonment. I skip the part about the assassination because I’ve learned from experience that once there’s a gun in the story, that’s all we’ll talk about, which misses the point of this celebration entirely.

I don’t really expect the children to remember the historical details. In fact, I know that presented to preschoolers, isolated from the context of the broad sweep of American history, it’s all landing in their brains as a collection of disturbing and inspiring images and words. My expectation is that they take their confusion home where they will spark conversations within their own families. But if there is one take-away I want to convey to the children, it is the concept of “fairness,” which is really the heart of democracy and the central point of the civil rights movement.

MLK was undeniably a great American, but more importantly is that he has come to symbolize the ongoing struggle for fairness and equality, which is the promise of our nation. It’s easy to look around, see injustice, and despair that it will always be with us, but on this day, when we honor the life of this man, it is important to celebrate how far we’ve come. In my lifetime apartheid was our law. Now we have a black President. The arc of moral history is clearly bending toward justice. This is something to celebrate and pondering how far we need to go should not dampen our pride and joy.

But perhaps even more important is to celebrate how MLK fought for justice. While others resorted to violence, his commitment to non-violence is really what carried the day. I like to talk about MLK as a bold, brave fighter who didn’t use his fists or weapons, but rather chose the way of love. This is a particularly valuable lesson for the boys, many of whom are fascinated with tough-guy superheroes and guns. I speak of love, as did MLK, as the most powerful force in the universe.

Again, I don’t really expect the children to learn all of these lessons over the course a week or two. I don’t really expect that the message of painting chains of “rainbow people” is going to give them an “ah ha” moment. I don’t really expect the children to consider the promise of our melting pot nation as they mix together the rich brown coffee grounds in our sensory table with the yellow corn meal. I don’t really think that the little MLK faces I taped to our wooden stacking robots (an idea I borrow from here) is going to change how they see the world. I don’t really expect them to fully understand the words, let alone the meaning, of MLK’s great I Have A Dream speech, which I played for them, in its entirety, yesterday.

But, in my own little way, I’m hoping that some of it will stick with them, because if I can send these children out into the world a little less prone to prejudice or violence, if I can send them out there with just a hint more tolerance or a slightly elevated sense of fairness, if they leave me with even a bit more of an understanding of the great power of love, I will have done my part in helping to bend the arc of history.

Yesterday as we listened to MLK’s recorded voice speak to us at circle time, the children sat as quietly as they ever sit, his words “rolling down like waters” on their ears. After a couple minutes I turned it off and sent them about their days. Later, when they returned from playing outside, MLK was speaking to them again. They came in chattering and goofing off as usual, but as they heard the words, they quietly took their seats on our blue rug, their eyes forward, their ears listening. By the time they were all settled in, we were spontaneously clapping along with the recorded audience, becoming in that moment a link in this chain of history. When I turned it off after a few minutes so that I could read our story, Luna popped to her feet, “I want to hear more!”

So I turned it back on. The children had re-taken control of the curriculum.

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Deborah Stewart said...

Tom, I love that they wanted to hear more. You know, what I use holidays like MLK for is to remind me to take the extra time needed to teach my students about peace, fairness, kindness, and having a dream. I like that you actually brought the voice of MLK in, I had never thought to do that. I have focused more on the values and less on historical fact or persons. I love how your students were intrigued - makes me need to rethink my approach a bit:)

Unknown said...

This was so beautiful. I just read it to all of my co workers. They were touched. As am I. Thank you.

Teaching Heart Mom said...

Sounds like you did an awesome job wit bringing MLK in to your classroom. I enjoyed your post.

kristin said...

yes, yes, yes.

i want to use this line:

"The children had re-taken control of the curriculum."

way to go, teacher tom.

kristin said...

p.s. this was the first year i showed an excerpt of dr. king's "i have a dream" speech via you tube. they were stunned. in part because we don't show movies or have computers, but in part to see him "alive."

Eternal Lizdom said...

Fantastic, Tom. Truly fantastic.

We recently dug up a bunch of old episodes of "Wonder Woman" and were shocked to listen to the lyrics of the opening song and get re-acquainted with all Wonder Woman stood up for. Per my comic geek husband, WW is the second strongest superhero in the DC universe. And her theme song talks of stopping a war with love and she fights for truth and believes in not harming- her people are a peaceful people.

So next time things get a little crazy with superheroes running amok... try out some Wonder Woman. :)

Centers and Circle Time said...

I usually teach a multi-cultural theme leading up to the MLK holiday. Like Deborah, I focus on fairness, love, and respect for others etc.

Two years ago, I began my circle time by asking (a class of white students). Do you think you're better than the black people? Little Kristy raised her and and said, "yes". So while I was attempting to recover from the shock, Colin piped and said, "uh huh, uh huh, Mrs. Myra, we are all the same! Other children couldn't wait to tell how "God made all of us" or point out all of our same qualities. By the end of circle time she had changed her mind:)

Sadly, I'm rarely excited about the MLK lesson since I have the same worries...Will they grasp the message?

I plan to print out this post and lay it on top of my theme box so when I open it up next year I'll remember how inspired I felt.

With a lump in my throat and wet eyes...I applaud your powerful post. Thank you:)