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Martin Luther King Jr. Day Lesson Plan

Tabitha Helms

Even thought MLK Day is a week away, this Monday was the only chance I had to do something with the kids to teach them about it due to a class party and a field trip both happening at the end of this week. I found a lesson plan online and tried it out in class. It was amazing! The results were perfect and our class discussion was great. I had a parent helper in the classroom when we reviewed what we learned about MLK and she was nodding her head in affirmation about what I was saying--always a good sign when teaching young kids about some tricky issues like segregation.

Here's what I did:

First, we looked at the calendar and noticed the picture of MLK on the 16th. I asked if anyone knew who he was to check for prior knowledge. A couple kids tried to answer, but didn't give the correct answer.

Next, I read a book I found at the library called, Martin's Big Words. It was a good story about MLK that included some of his famous quotes--focusing on love and not hate, equality, etc. It didn't really talk about segregation. It mentioned "white only signs that made Martin feel bad," but didn't explain what that meant. I stopped at that point and asked the kids what they thought that meant. No one guessed the right answer, so I told them to look at their hands and tell me what color their hands were. I got all sorts of responses. I told them to raise their hand if they thought they had white hands. I said that the signs that said "white only" meant that only the people raising their hands right now could use that water fountain or bathroom or store. Everyone else had to use something else. They weren't allowed. "That's not very nice, is it?" I finished reading the story--skipping some parts on the second to last page that talked about Martin getting shot.

We talked a little about how it wasn't fair what people were doing and saying. We discussed how we have the rule at school to use our words not our fists. We talked about how "equality" means fairness. I asked them what "rights" were and talked about some rights that they have--like having an opinion to not want to do something and how it's okay for them to say their opinion nicely, etc.

Then I had everyone get in a circle around the outside of our carpet. I got some orange and green circle stickers and alternated putting one on everyone's hand. I got out my math manipulative interlocking cubes and said I was going to let them play with the blocks however they wanted for 5 minutes, but I had two rules they had to follow. My two rules were: 1) Students with green stickers could play with any blocks they wanted. (There were excited exclamations.) 2) Students with orange stickers could only play with blocks that had circles in them. (There were more excited exclamations because they couldn't yet anticipate the unfairness.)

You can use whatever "play item" you have. The lesson plan I used said Legos and one group plays with all and one group plays with red Legos only. I have a significantly lower number of blocks that have the circles on them than blocks without.

I told the students to begin and watched to see everyone begin grabbing blocks towards them to build with if they could play with any and pick out blocks with holes if they couldn't. Pretty soon, I started hearing, "Hey!" and "I don't have any." "That's mine!" Students who could play with anything had collected both kinds of blocks. Students who couldn't had started taking blocks with holes out of others' already claimed piles, explaining that that's all they could play with. The owner who was being "stolen" from still protested. I saw frowns and smiles from each group. One little boy was getting close to tears, so I stopped their game and had everyone put their hands on the heads so they wouldn't be distracted while we talked about it.

I said, "Raise your hand if you had a green sticker. What was your rule?" They repeated it. I asked how that made them feel. "Good, happy." I said, "Raise your hand if you had an orange sticker. What was your rule?" They repeated. "How did that make you feel?" "Bad, sad, upset, it wasn't fair."

I said, "This is what it was like for people in Martin's time. If you had white skin, you were the one that could play with or use anything. If you didn't, you were like the one that could only play with some. That's not very fair is it?" I continued asking them, questions about it and several of the students gave examples of what could and couldn't be used by people during that time.

I concluded saying that MLK fought with love and with his words to make everything equal for everybody. That was a very good thing, so now we celebrate his birthday to remember what he did for our country."

I had the students color a picture of MLK. If they were more independent with their writing, I would have also had them write and draw a picture of their dream for our country.

Hope this helps you prepare for the upcoming holiday!