Activities for Helping Children Understand Civil Rights and Martin Luther King

Teach MLK Day Simulating the March on Washington - kconnors
Teach MLK Day Simulating the March on Washington – kconnors
Classes across America study Martin Luther King yearly, learning locations, events, and outcomes of his work. Develop higher level understanding by exploring the whys.

It is helpful to grab opportunities to teach history when students are hearing about it everywhere. This makes the days and weeks around Martin Luther King Day a great time to explore black history. Students at any age can benefit from approaching history as processes rather than just isolated events.

Advantages of Teaching History Including Higher Order Thinking Skills

For generations the teaching of history has included the five W’s of who, what, when, where, and why. There is so much to be taught in the factual arena that the why can often escape notice. Yet it is widely understood among educators that learning is more easily generalized if there is a generous dose of higher level thinking skills included in the learning process.

It might be helpful to group the first four W’s of who, what, when, and where into one section called Facts, and put the why and how in a group which could be called Feelings. Clear understanding of history can only be developed with an exploration of both facts and feelings which generated the historical events.

Simulating the March on Washington to Teach MLK Day Concepts

After learning some facts through use of a video, textbook material, or Scholastic News/Weekly Readers, students often answer questions – getting them either right or wrong, and then stop there. Adding the step of a simulated stop-action march while holding a classroom discussion can serve as a stimulus for further thought, spurring writing ideas and more thorough understandings of the historical events.

Let the students form a line, linking arms as seen in photos or movies of the real event. If the group is small enough, just form one line across the room so the teacher can be in front facing the students while teaching. At first, there will be some giggling and excitement. This would be a great time to sing We Shall Overcome. 

However, the teacher will need to point out that in the real situation, the courage they all saw in their studies was accompanied by realistic fear of possible consequences: being hit with thrown objects, being beat up, losing their jobs, etc.

Yet the marchers were willing to risk that because of their hopes and goals of more equal rights under the law and in actual practice in society. At this point the teacher or a student can read all or part (depending on levels and attention) of the I Have a Dream speech.

Writing activities about Martin Luther King may include interviewing grandparents or other older members of family and friends to learn what problems the marchers had that they wanted to have fixed by making new laws and enforcing both old and new laws. This will spur conversations with older family members which may not otherwise ever happen.

Developing the Concept of Non-Violence While Teaching MLK Day

Using stories or videos from literature which teach “the pen is more powerful than the sword” or history selections about Ghandi, show students the source of MLK’s belief in non-violence as a way to make changes in society. Discuss in small groups and report back about why King would have chosen this method.

Make a set of Non-Violence Cards using any size from 3 x 5 to 4 x 6 or using half sheets of construction or other school paper. Write a problem situation which could have occurred in the past or even now. Then students can brainstorm or work individually to devise a non-violent approach to solving that problem.

This lesson can interweave with preventative teaching about bullying as well as other social skills taught in the classroom. Then the solutions can be shared either orally or on a bulletin board.

Further investigation can include lyrics in songs from the past or current ones. Since music taps the energy of the soul, there is great teaching value in including music in learning activities. Students may enjoy writing their own lyrics or brainstorming ideas for a rap.

Including Hispanics and Others in Learning About Martin Luther King

One of the challenges of teaching about the issues of civil rights is to make it apply to all students, not just blacks and whites. Modern classrooms may include a variety of ethnic backgrounds, so there are ways to make all students part of the discussion about fairness and justice in society.

Children can be asked to describe, either orally or in writing, a time when they felt they weren’t treated fairly. Special attention may be given to issues of race or culture, but it should not be limited to that. Students who can make personal connections with history will remember, and apply, what they studied far more than those who have only studied facts.

Using Writing to Teach About Martin Luther King and Civil Rights

Have students write a journal entry, or several, of someone who:

  • sat at a lunch counter sit-in
  • sat on a bus
  • walked in the bus boycott
  • and other events they may learn about in their texts or other media.

Make choice cards by folding a card in half, putting the problem on one half and two possible choices on the other half. Then turn on the back and write pros and cons of difficult choices to consider in making decisions about whether to join a sit-in, march, etc.

As schools and families endeavor to teach children about Martin Luther King, non-violence, and civil rights, there is a vital need to include higher order thinking skills of hows and whys in the teaching of history. It can be taught in a way that includes Hispanics and other ethnic groups in the classroom, making personal connections to history while teaching acceptance of diversity. Classes can have a discussion while simulating the March on Washington, and do writing activities to apply their learning about justice and fairness in society on MLK Day or at any other time.

Copyright by Hildra Tague.  Obtain author’s permission in writing for use in print or online.
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About grantutor

Career educator in both public and private schools. Has tutored all ages. Writes about education, parenting, & seniors. Sings harmony with folk/rock group and a choir. Caregiver for spouse who dealt with Stage IV cancer. Happy person committed to nature and conservation of a green world.
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2 Responses to Activities for Helping Children Understand Civil Rights and Martin Luther King

  1. Pingback: Educational Issues: Windows of Illiteracy | Hildra Tague's Celebrations of Learning Blog

  2. Pingback: School Yard Tales: Hugging History with Mr. President | Hildra Tague's Celebrations of Learning Blog

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