Today in America, we honor the life of Martin Luther King, Jr. Because it’s a national holiday, this allows many of us to enjoy a day off. But, many don’t realize that, beyond being a means of celebrating the peaceful fight that Dr. King and the many others who fought to win African Americans their equal rights in America, it’s also a day of service in his memory.
When I’m not on maternity leave, I teach in a school library. I usually discuss Dr. King and the others who have helped for the fight for equality from now through February for Black History Month. Through media, plays, role play, and, of course, great books, I’ve found that you can actually open up the topics of fairness, diversity, equality, and service to a wide range of ages. Most children are able to understand not only these concepts but the fact that American history isn’t always a gleaming display of perfection and righteousness, but rather lessons from which we can learn.
Here are some of my favorite books and lessons to help broach the topics of inequality and injustice and to help your children understand more about the day, the man, and the cause.
Preschool and Early Elementary (pre-K – 2nd grade) – While this age may be difficult to open up the topic of his assassination and even racism in general, introducing children to Dr. King and his cause(s) is appropriate.
The concept of fairness is a very understandable one at this age, so helping it hit home with a little social experiment always gets the children thinking. You can do this in simplified or more complex ways, but here’s an example: I might tell students that anyone with dark hair may get books in the usual sections, but those with light hair may pick books from the discard box (consisting of old, worn books) and have a chat about how each group felt and discuss empathy.
Dr. Seuss’ The Sneetches is also a wonderful, subtle way to teach the idea of racism and equality.
Elementary Age (2nd grade – 5th grade) – This is a good age to introduce Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. Also, many of the incredible books that have been written about King’s life are perfect for this age, in which the conversation about his tragic death can be started (using great sensitivity with the earlier ages). Here are my favorites, but feel free to use them at whatever age you feel your child is ready:
– Martin’s Big Words – My all-time favorite Dr. King book, this is a boiled-down biography that talks about the “big words” that shaped King’s outlook on life and the big words that he shared with the world.
– My Uncle Martin’s Big Heart – It’s always special to hear about a famous person from someone who knew them personally; in this case, Dr. King’s niece. It’s also from the perspective of a child, as she was when she knew her great uncle.
– Ruby Bridges – Anything regarding this brave girl’s story of integration at a young age really hits home for students of the same age. Younger readers can try The Story of Ruby Bridges while Through My Eyes is great for the older readers.
– Henry’s Freedom Box is a stirring story of a slave who mails himself to freedom that resonates deeply with readers.
Older Kids (middle/high school) – One of my favorite ways to teach any topic are to bridge different forms of media. So, I’ll hand kids the lyrics and crank up U2’s “Pride (In the Name of Love)”. It’s an incredible conversation starter to discuss not only the poetry behind the lyrics but the dignity and, well, pride that Dr. King embodied. After teaching this with students, I can’t help but cry hearing the song now.
Upper elementary and middle school grades are also good to introduce books about slavery, the Jim Crow south, and racism. There are a plethora of classic historical fiction and autobiographical books, such as The Watsons Go to Birmingham, Brown Girl Dreaming, Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry, All American Boys, A Picture of Freedom: The Diary of Clotee, a Slave Girl and many more that offer various perspective on race and injustice.
Any Age – Since the date is a day of service, it’s a great opportunity to discuss the idea of giving back to one’s community, and why it’s a fantastic way to commemorate King’s life of service. Brainstorm ways that your family can take some time out to serve your own community. Some ideas include:
– Donating books to shelters, after-school groups, hospitals, and nursing homes;
– Writing an article for the school newspaper about volunteer opportunities in your area;
– Reading favorite stories aloud for a story-time event at a local library;
– Helping adult language learners at a community center;
– Sending letters to American troops stationed overseas;
– Becoming a reading buddy to a younger student at your school;
– Interviewing elders in your community to create a book of oral histories
…among many others!
Are there any ways that your family honors this day (or any day!) with an act of service? If so, what do you do?