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How to Think About, Discuss, and Celebrate Martin Luther King Day with Young Children

Friday, January 11, 2019

The 2018-2019 5-6s Class

Excerpted advice from 5-6's Teacher, Anna Sobel -

Dear 5-6s’ Families,

December and January are particularly important months at MCS as we prepare to honor and celebrate Martin Luther King Day.  As soon as the children noticed the new books about Dr. King on our shelves, they immediately began discussing who he was. In addition to our work in the classroom, the children will be learning related songs in Music with Susan, who makes sure to talk through the children’s understanding of the songs’ content.  On Friday, January 18, we will participate in an MLK assembly for the 4-5s – 7-8s, and get to see part of the Martin Luther King, Jr. presentation written and performed by the sixth grade.  On Monday, January 21 families are encouraged to come to an MLK Day March organized by the eighth grade.

Dr. King’s convictions are the foundation upon which our school was established, and, though we incorporate many of his teachings throughout the school year, this is a time when our connection to the Civil Rights movement is particularly emphasized.  MCS was also founded on the principle that children can learn about the world in a way that encourages them to be active and innovative in addressing inequalities and social justice issues. But this occurs in different ways for different age groups; 5- and 6-year-olds can’t comprehend the complexities and atrocities the way even 8-, 11-, and 13-year-olds can, and giving them information about topics that exceeds their level of understanding can at times lead them to feel scared and worried.  In the younger grades at MCS, we want to help lay the groundwork that will lead your children to later become the eighth graders who plan and run the MLK Day March, but address these issues in a way that makes sense to them.

By having discussions around the Civil Rights movement and MLK, we allow the children a venue for talking through and clarifying their understanding of these topics.  In this letter, we wanted to share with you how we think and talk about these often-difficult issues with the children. Not all of the topics listed below will be addressed; we follow the trajectory of the children’s comments and questions, so it is hard to predict exactly which ideas will be explored in the greatest detail.

The Knowledge Children Bring:

We want to honor the different knowledge children bring on this topic, give them room to share their knowledge and talk about it; some children may have read several books about Martin Luther King, while others may have never heard of him.  Since we of course can’t control what the children will bring up, we respond to them by validating their knowledge, talking through it, and connecting it back to core principles (such as peace, rights, and fairness).  We will be communicating with you throughout the month to let you know what topics arose through daily conversation and how we discussed them in class.  Please feel free to speak with us about anything that has come up at home or any questions you may have!

Humanizing Heroes:

One of our goals is to humanize MLK and other famous people we discuss (including Rosa Parks and Ruby Bridges, one of the first Black children to attend an integrated elementary school in 1960).  In addition to discussing Martin’s messages of peace, we read about and look at pictures of Martin with his family. We find that this helps children understand that Martin was an actual person, not just a mythical hero, and that ordinary people have the capability to create change on a large scale.  Accordingly, we often refer to Dr. King as “Martin” to enhance the children’s sense of connection to him.

You Can Tell Just By Looking At Me…

The 5-6s will explore what you can and cannot tell about a person from their physical appearance alone.  After much discussion, we’ll do a writing project where each child writes and draws about what you can and cannot tell just by looking at him/her.

Black and White:

Because ‘black’ and ‘white’ are politicized terms, they are very confusing for children, who look at their skin and see shades of brown and peach.  In our discussions we often refer to “people with brown skin” and “people with peachy skin”. We also explicitly let them know that when they hear the terms “black” and “white” in the books we read, or in conversations they might have or overhear, these are words that are not very accurate, but are used as umbrella terms for people with brown skin and people with peachy skin, respectively.

“A Long Time Ago”: “We’re Safe”

While we focus primarily on the Civil Rights movement, slavery is a topic that often arises.  We talk about that time as “so, so long ago, before our great-grandparents were alive”, and about the time of Martin as “a long time ago…almost 50 years ago!”  Though we might very briefly touch upon the idea that there is still inequality today, we want children to feel safe (that the atrocities of the past won’t occur to them or anyone they know).  We are giving particular thought to this based on our current political climate, wrestling with how to use Dr. King’s message to inform how we respond to the president-elect while also helping the kids feel secure.  This also arises in discussions of Martin’s death; if any children bring up Martin being shot, we make it very clear to the children that they are safe.

Making Connections:

Because young children learn through making connections, we find that 5- and 6-year-olds are best able to understand and think critically when they can connect the issues to their own lives.  We address this mainly through something that children think about all the time: fairness. Below are topics that come up regarding fairness:

  • What does “fair” mean?  Children often have very different understandings of “fair”.  We often discuss “fair” in the context of people getting what they need.  Lindsay gave the example that it is “fair” that she has glasses and Anna doesn’t, since Anna’s eyes don’t need glasses.
  • What does everyone need?  We’ll discuss what we need in our 5-6s’ community to make sure everyone is learning.  In this way, we can guide the children to make parallels between their daily experience and what life was like in Martin’s time.
  • “Needs”→”Rights”: We start describing these “needs” as “rights”; just by being a 5-6 you have the “right” to be in and use our classroom, the “right” to participate in class discussions/decisions, and the “right” to feel safe.  In this way, we’ll begin to talk about the same “rights” all people have in communities, to have access to the services of the community, to be able to vote for change, and to feel safe in their environment.
  • How do our class rules help us make sure that all of these needs are met for everyone?  We talk about how many of our classroom rules ensure that children’s needs are met, and how laws serve the same function for society.  
  • What would happen if there were different rules for different kids?  How would that make you feel?  What would you do?  The children explore the idea of inequality, as well as the feelings that would result.  We’ll eventually ponder the question, What if only a few people got to vote in our classroom decisions? The 5-6s vote on many things, such as an activity to put out at Worktime; though they at times feel frustrated when their choice isn’t the one with the most votes, they all seem to believe that voting is “fair”.  We’ll discuss what would happen if only a few children got to vote and everyone else had to follow their decisions.  What if those few children got to decide the rules for our class?  We’re hoping to guide the children to understand why voting was such a key issue in the Civil Rights movement, because the rules that were unfair couldn’t be changed by those that disagreed with them.
  • When there are disagreements in the 5-6s, what do we do to find a solution that keeps everyone safe?  The children end up talking about how we use our words when frustrated rather than our bodies, much like Martin wanted to use his words to reach solutions.
  • Why Marty and Gus Trowbridge started MCS:  The children are often very excited to understand MCS’s personal connection to the movement.  We talk about how many people were inspired by Martin to make change.

Reading Books:

Below is a list of books we read aloud about these topics. When we read the books to the children, we edit out any parts or words we think would be inappropriate for them.

  • Martin’s Big Words – Doreen Rappaport

  • Happy Birthday, Martin Luther King! - Jean Marzollo

  • Rosa – Nikki Giovanni

  • My Brother Martin – Christine King Farris

  • The Story of Ruby Bridges – Robert Coles

  • Coretta Scott – Ntozake Shange and Kadir Nelson

  • The Colors of Us – Karen Katz

  • Boycott Blues - Andrea Pinkney

  • If a Bus Could Talk: The Story of Rosa Parks - Faith Ringgold

  • What Does Peace Feel Like? - V. Radunsky

  • I Have a Dream (an illustrated book of the famous speech) - Martin Luther King, illustrated by Kadir Nelson

  • The Youngest Marcher - Cynthia Levinson

  • Aunt Harriet’s Underground Railroad - Faith Ringgold

  • Separate is Never Equal - Duncan Tonatiuh