I have felt really nervous to write this blog post about teaching Martin Luther King for kids, because I know that I definitely do not have all the answers here, so I try and include lots of resources and articles from educators I trust and that I learn a lot from. Before you read on, I want you to understand where I am coming from. I am a white female teacher. I teach in a suburban, upper-middle class district in Massachusetts. My students are a diverse group with many different languages being spoken, mainly of Asian and European descent. And every year when Martin Luther King Jr. Day comes around, I get nervous.
I am uncomfortable talking about our country’s history of (and continued systemic) racism with my students – there, I admit it. But that is something I am constantly working on. I will talk at the end of the article about all of the resources that I use to learn more about, and reflect on, the racism in all of our country’s systems, all the privilege that I experience every day, and how I can be more anti-racist in my life and my teaching.
So, why do I get nervous teaching about one of our country’s most important historical figures? Because, I thought, teaching about Martin Luther King Jr. meant ruining the innocence of my students. They had no idea about the evils of our society – they had no idea what racism is or where it comes from. And by telling them, I felt I was opening their eyes to the way our world really is, as opposed to the wonderful world they live in. However, after several years of teaching and thinking this way, I was listening to an educator on instagram and realized that children of color already know about racism, because they deal with it every – single – day. It made me think about how much privilege my students have – that racism is something I have to teach them. Ever since that realization, I have changed the way I think about teaching Dr. Martin Luther King for kids.
History of Racism
Racism did not end with Martin Luther King Jr. It is still happening today, and Martin Luther King Day should not be the first time you have addressed it with your students and it should not be the last. I use books and everyday teachable moments to have discussions about stereotypes and racism. I especially love the books Amazing Grace and Chocolate Me!
Before I use any books or videos with my students to teach about Martin Luther King, Jr., I have a conversation with them. I try my best with this conversation – I try and be age-appropriate and honest with my students. If you have feedback for how this conversation should go, please let me know!
I tell my students that a long time ago, many people with white skin didn’t like people with dark skin (later I talk about how this still happens today). The white skinned people thought that just because the darker skin was a different color, then the darker skinned people weren’t as smart or as good as they were – just because of the color of their skin. And that that is crazy!
Well, because white people thought this way, they had unfair laws against people with dark skin. They said that people with black skin can’t go to the same school as people with white skin, can’t eat at the same tables in a restaurant, can’t use the same bathrooms or water fountains – I mean it was ridiculous! But at that time in history, most white people thought this was good. Well, many black people, and some white people, started to stand up and say, hey, this is not ok! One of those people was Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and we are going to learn about him and all that he did to change our country for the better.
After talking with my students, I use books and resources to showcase more of the struggles black people faced during and before Martin Luther King’s time. I also try my best to talk about struggles still faced today. When teaching about Martin Luther King, I want to make sure I touch on his message of love and acceptance of others, as well as his example of fighting with peace.
Martin Luther King’s Message of Love
One of the important lessons I want my students to learn from Martin Luther King Jr. is that we must love. We must act with love. When we love, we love those who look like us and those who don’t. We don’t judge people based on the color of their skin. Dr. King also teaches us that it is important to stand up for others. We must act and stand up against injustices. His “I have a Dream” speech is obviously a famous speech that works well for teaching our students to stand up for making the world a better place. Enjoy this freebie to give to your students to talk about how they want to make the world a better place!
Fighting with Peace
Another important message from Martin Luther King for kids is that we can stand up for what we believe is right using peace. I love to use Todd Parr’s The Peace Book to introduce this idea. The Peace Book gives examples of peace and helps young students start to understand this very complicated idea. It’s important to teach our young students that people hated with Martin Luther King was saying so much that they put him in jail, they said mean things and hurt him, and they even shot him. Yet, he knew that peace was the way to make change happen. He didn’t say mean things back or hurt people back. He stayed peaceful. I like using this crown with my students at the end of this study to have them show off their favorite symbols of peace.
Resources for Teaching About Martin Luther King for Kids
As I said early, I definitely don’t have all the answers here, but here are my favorite resources to use with my students.
Conscious Kid is an amazing organization that aims to reduce bias and promote positive identity development in youth. They have an awesome list of books to use when teaching about Martin Luther King Jr.
Teaching Tolerance is a must go-to for all teachers. They offer free resources for educators from kindergarten to high school to teach with social justice and anti-bias approaches. They have so many resources and lesson plans and activities for all kinds of topics, but definitely check out their resources for MLK day!
Pebble Go – is a paid database, but my school pays for it. It has biographies of many people, including Martin Luther King Jr. And there are photos and a video. Plus, it will read aloud to your students!
National Geographic for kids has a free section on Martin Luther King Jr with information, photos, and a video.
Scholastic News has their video available for free on Martin Luther King Jr – the Man Who Changed America.
Also, who doesn’t love Kid President? He teaches us about Martin Luther King Jr. in this video!
Brain Pop Jr. is another great, paid, resource that has a video and quiz on Martin Luther King Jr. There is a shot noise when he is shot and killed, and that sometimes scares a few of my students. But it is very informative.
I mentioned that I am working on educating myself on the historical and current systems of prejudice and racism that are in this country and that I am benefiting from as a white person. I am learning and reflecting on ways that I can be more anti-racist in life and in teaching. How do I do this? I would love to share my favorite resources with you:
I am so thankful for instagram for bringing these amazing educators into my life, and more than that I am so thankful for these educators for constantly educating me and helping me to reflect.
Read Like a Rockstar, Naomi, is always posting thought-provoking statements that really help me reflect as an educator. She also has very helpful information on ways that I can be more anti-racist with my students. She has two very helpful blog posts on teaching black history and teaching controversial issues.
Mrs. Russell’s Room is another amazing educator that I learn from daily. She also has several blog posts I found very helpful: Why Teachers are Silent On Race Relations, 3 Black History Month Considerations, as well as a whole section on culturally responsive teaching.
Other educators I learn from on instagram are Teach and Transform and The Tutu Teacher. They are worth following! Liz from Teach and Transform always posts important research and statements on being anti-biased teachers. Vera, The Tutu Teacher, always posts amazing children’s book recommendations. She is my go-to for finding amazing books by diverse authors and about diverse characters.
There are a lot of podcasts out there, but these podcasts are teaching me so much:
Teaching with Tolerance has their own podcast called Teaching Hard History – and it’s all on teaching about slavery. Before you teach about slavery, this is a must listen!
1619 by the New York Times has been very informative – they go into the historical practices of racism that I had never learned in history class.
And finally, The Breakdown with Shaun King teaches me about racism happing in our country right now. Shaun breaks down the current issues by explaining the history behind it (again history I did not learn in school) and gives action steps on how to stop these issues from occurring and/or happening again.
There are so many books I could list here – many that I still have on my waiting list to read.
I definitely recommend starting with Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together In The Cafeteria by Beverly Tatum because it is very highly quoted by recent books and research. I also recommend White Fragility by Robin Diangelo and Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates.
One that I haven’t read yet but I am excited to start is Why I’m No Longer Talking To White People About Race by Reni Eddo-Lodge.
There are so many important lessons about Martin Luther King for kids to learn, but we can’t just stop there. We must teach our students about the history of racism and how it continues today. Racism did not end with Martin and we must constantly work with ourselves and with our students to change the systems of inequality that have had hundreds of years to be put in place.
Do you have other resources that I should check out? Comment below!
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