Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Teaching a Unit on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

First off, let's get one thing pretty straight. Teaching your students about Martin Luther King Jr. is more than something you do in January when his birthday is near. Of course, it's a great thing that we have a day set aside to commemorate the life of Dr. King, but he's more than just a day of coloring pages and a quick read aloud.

Many of us spend weeks and weeks teaching about presidents, George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, and Thomas Jefferson. Marting Luther King Jr. is easily one of the most important figures in American history that we can teach our students. The man stood for so many good things, he stood for pride, peace, justice, equality, and respect for everyone.

I actually teach a civil rights unit, with the impetus of the entire thing being the life and teachings of Dr. King. There are many ways to approach such a unit, so I'll simply provide the example of what I do, and some of the resources I use when teaching about King, and hopefully some of it will be helpful for you. Just remember, making the decision to focus an extended period of teaching on men of integrity like King is the right decision, don't question it.

I always start my civil rights unit with a letter home to parents asking them for permission to teach their students through visual means. What I mean by this is that I do show them images of the struggle of civil rights, they hear and read accounts of the struggle, of the blood, the humiliation, and the death. It's important not to shock students, but to make the reality shine clearly. Civil rights was not simply a list of non-violent struggles to help African Americans gain equal rights, it was a bloody time. They were humiliated, beaten, and killed, and while we must be careful with what we show our students, we must also focus on the truth and the reality.

My school always shows the one-hour-long cartoon Our Friend, Martinright before the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday in January. This video is appropriate for kindergartners to watch, but even the older students, as old as 8th or 9th grade, sit and watch this video and always seem to retain quite a bit of what is presented, the life and historical importance of Reverend King. I recommend this video as an introduction to your unit if you can get ahold of it.

From there, we move into some literature on King, and begin the unit itself. First, let me explain some of the activities, and then I'll end by providing a list of some good picture, chapter, and reference books about Dr. King.

One overall activity that I have my students do is a biography of King. Each student is responsible for making a timeline of his life, and a list of the important events of his life. We do a bulletin board in the hallway with the letters KING in the middle, with short blurbs about King's life and importance around the name on the bulletin board. The students make the short blurbs from their biographies.

Obviously there are many approaches to the unit, I just gave a brief overview of a quick idea how to begin. You could also have your class make a video, which is something I'm doing right now with my class. Students will each record a 2 minute video where they discuss why King is important to them, and then, by mixing their clips with pictures, audio, and clips of King, make a video to show to the school. These are just a few ideas, now for the literature:

Here are some great picture books to use in your unit:

And here's some great chapter books and reference style books to add to your library or read with your class:

  • King: A Comics Biography of Martin Luther King, Jr. (The Complete Edition), by Ho Che Anderson - This 228 page graphic comic book is a masterpiece among masterpieces. It's a stunning visual and written account of the life of King. I don't know that I could recommend this book for students younger than say 7th or 8th grade, but as far as books about Dr. King goes, this one is stunning in every way.
  • Children of the Dream: Our Own Stories Growing Up Black in America by Laurel Holliday - This 450 page book presents individual stories, diary excerpts, and essays of African Americans during and after King's "I Have A Dream" speech. It's a good book, you can definitely use bits and pieces of it, although probably not the whole thing.
  • My Life with Martin Luther King, Jr. by Coretta Scott King - This book is unique because it's partly a retelling of King's own autobiography, but also shows you the extraordinary life of Dr. King's wife.