MLK – The LOUD teacher!

LOUD doesn’t just mean high volume.  It also means ‘strong or emphatic in expression’ and  ‘clamorous and insistent’.  When I think of someone who was LOUD, who used his voice in order to affect change, who spoke out to (as Rep. John Lewis likes to say) “get into trouble … good trouble … necessary trouble”, I always point to Martin Luther King, Jr. – and not just on a Monday in January.  However, today gave me a great chance to look back on some of my own experiences involving Dr. King and what I (and my students) have learned from him.

As social studies teachers know, the Civil Rights Movement was more than just the famous names and sometimes isolated events that are the emphasis of most textbooks and documentaries.  Still, I feel it’s imperative that we but we must focus on King as both an icon and an example.  What are a few of the lessons I have learned … and try to teach though King?

Ordinary people can do extraordinary things, but it takes extra to make it happen.

I was fortunate to tour the south a few years ago (thanks to a generous grant from my school), and half of my focus was digging into the history of various Civil Rights sites.  Fittingly, my tour opened in Atlanta, with visits to the MLK NPS site, the King Center, Ebenezer Baptist Church, and MLK’s boyhood home.  The locations are essential to understanding of the the Civil Rights Movement, but more importantly, the life, character, and contributions of Dr. King.  I always share my experience in his boyhood home, walking through a house that was similar to a modest home in my own Milwaukee.  Seeing his humble beginnings and finding out that he liked board games and baseball (but not doing chores) brings the legend down to the average person – me.  As the NPS ranger said on my tour, “anyone can be great if you make the right choices and help others”.  That’s what we need to instill in the hearts and minds of our students – and ourselves.

To learn about the past, you need to walk in the footsteps of history.

It probably goes without saying to the social studies crowd, but there is no better way to understand the great stories of the past and how they still resonate today by visiting historical locations, monuments, and memorials.  To truly appreciate what John Lewis, MLK, and the many others did marching from Selma to Montgomery in 1965, you have to go there, walk over the Edmund Pettus Bridge, drive along the county highway that they traversed, visit their encampment, and walk the grounds of the Alabama state capitol.  Going there inspires a sense of understanding, wonder, curiosity, awe, and inspiration. The same can be said for the countless other historic sites, local, national and international, that we can try to visit and encourage our students to do the same.  If we had unlimited funding, a school year on wheels would incredible – but not feasible.  At least taking kids to a historical site, government building, or memorial location is (hopefully) a possibility for teachers, for the best classroom is often not in a school building.

Words are powerful, so use them wisely.

MLK was a master of the spoken and written word, perhaps more than any other in modern history. His words still resonate with society today, both the famous phrases or relatively unknown passages, and I always challenge my students to find the most impactful statement from Dr. King when we visit his memorial in Washington DC. We can use his mastery of the words in classes by having students examine his works, consider his word choice, his use of allusions and repetition, his cadence when he speaks, and how he is very careful with how he expresses his ideas. it’s certainly beneficial for students to listen to his speeches and read his writings, but it’s more important for them to really dig into what he says and how he says it. My American studies partner Dr. Laurie Walczak and I have done so with King’ seminal “I Have a Dream Speech, utilizing the nonfiction reading signposts presented by Probst and Beers.  Most Americans don’t know that the speech actually has two parts, in the often-overlooked prepared part of the speech really ended before King expressed his dream. A much deeper analysis of King’s most famous oration not only provide students with a deeper understanding of his message, but also about how words are incredibly important and powerful, and therefore must be chosen wisely, both in print and when spoken.  Hopefully students can use this is a lesson when they are preparing your own orations, but more importantly when they are expressing themselves in the various forms of media that they choose. Plus, they can realize that you don’t need to say “like” 20 times in a sentence to get your point across.

Leaders lead by example, not by intimidation.

We are always looking to foster leadership in all of our students, especially in the social studies, since our task is to develop civic competence in our students to set the stage for a better future for our country and globe. We often stress the importance of leading by example through positive actions and not by the strongest fist or the deepest pockets. MLK is a great case study in this key concept of leadership.  He talked the talk of nonviolence and civil disobedience, but he also walked the walk, both literally and figuratively. His experiences in Birmingham in 1963 and the subsequent efforts of thousands of Birmingham residents in Project C showed that you can effect change buy doing the right thing and leading others by your exemplary actions. Seeing a replica of his jail cell at the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute and walking the grounds of Kelly Ingram Park reinforced that concept for me. There are many other figures that we can use in this study on leadership, and MLK can be a central one or just the example that most students will know.  Whatever the case, the message is important, and a crucial one for our social studies classes.

I’ll close with a message that I shared are lower school students many years ago our MLK assembly. MLK was a great leader, an Incredible speaker, and an inspiration to countless people across the globe. However, I see him not just as an activist, or a preacher, or an icon – I see him as a teacher.  His words, presented on the wall of the MLK Memorial, are really the objectives to what we want to teach our kids, in school and at home. Doing the right thing the right way; respecting all people regardless of race, religion, or belief; working together to solve problems; finding a cause or passion to push for positive change–isn’t that we want to see in our kids? In the social studies, this should be the focus of all of our lessons, activities and discussions– it’s not about memorizing names and dates, but about inspiring kids to evaluate the past, understand the present, and push to make a better future. That’s what Dr. King did, and we should still use him as our example for our teaching.


I have approached the Civil Rights Movement differently the past few years, asking students to immerse themselves in various events in the movement and, instead of trying to take copious notes and memorize for a test, to figure out what lessons we all can learn from the movement. Here a few samples of what my students have developed … so far.

 

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