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Kindred Spirits: Beyond the Dream: MLK in the Classroom

January 9, 2018 | 4 comments

Kindred Spirits: Beyond the Dream: MLK in the Classroom

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Happy New Year!

Having a kindred spirit to bounce ideas off of is such a joy. Tricia and I were able to spend some quality time during the winter break discussing our plans for observing MLK Day this year. We’ve learned a lot from one another about how to make Martin Luther King Jr. resonate with our students whether using fiction or research or a good old-fashioned Socratic seminar. We hope you will find our various activities and resources to be inspiring and useful. — Jess and Tricia

Tricia's Thoughts:

One of my joys of winter break is relishing the opportunity to catch up with some reading. This year is no exception, and I am glad that Nic Stone’s Dear Martin was in my “on deck” pile. I just finished the book this morning, and it will be on the top of my book-talk list when I return to students who will be selecting new books to read in partnerships.

The book tells the story of Justyce, a Yale-bound high school senior who in the opening chapter is brutally and wrongfully handcuffed by a police officer. Justyce faces many thoughts and questions about race and racism and embarks on a personal project—to live like Martin Luther King Jr. As part of this project, he writes letters to MLK (like the one below), which are interspersed throughout the novel.

Stone, Nic. Dear Martin. Crown Books for Young Readers, 2017.

The novel takes on questions about identity while confronting important issues such as racial profiling, affirmative action and police brutality. It is a necessary addition to any upper middle and high school classroom library. I have already purchased multiple copies for use in my social issues book clubs later this year.

During these book club sessions, students read their books using the following essential questions both as a lens and an entry point for response and discussion:

  • How does power or lack of power affect individuals or groups? What does power have to do with fairness and justice?
  • When should a person take a stand against what he or she believes to be an injustice? What are ways to do so?
  • Why do some people take a stand against prejudice and oppression while others choose to stand by or participate in it? What does this reveal about those individuals?
  • What connections can I make to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights?

I look forward to the rich conversations students who read Dear Martin are sure to have and also seeing the connections they make to their studies of Martin Luther King Jr. and his work.

As Martin Luther King Day approaches, I have been thinking about how else I might use this novel with my students. On a recent Book Love Podcast with Cornelius Minor, Penny Kittle talked about how she read aloud to her students the chapter from Dear Martin where the topic of affirmative action is being debated in one of Justyce’s classes. She then invited students to write in response to that chapter, while she, as the book she wrote for Heinemann suggests, wrote beside them.

Inspired by this, I plan on having students start by thinking about what they know about Martin Luther King Jr., what he stood for and how he lived his life, and then consider what it might mean to “live like Martin.” I will then read them the start of Chapter 5 when Justyce and his friends decide to dress up as stereotypes for Halloween, and things go a little too far, making Justyce uncomfortable and later angry because he did not initially speak up about his feelings. I see this as an opportunity for students to be introspective, and I imagine that they will relate to the conflict Justyce feels and how this in turn relates to the idea of “living like Martin.”

Jess' Take:

Exploring the history of MLK Day may be the key to making the day resonate with students at any grade level. In the secondary classroom, providing room for research and discussion of themes central to MLK’s activism can lead to important connections between the past and the present. I would be remiss to discuss MLK Day without allowing a conversation in which my students felt free to consider today’s race relations in America.

Real-World Discussion

Of course, undertaking such discussions can be intimidating for the best of instructors. An astute teacher will give thought to desired outcomes of a discussion that might become emotionally charged and keep his or her bias in check throughout. The Center for Teaching at Vanderbilt University provides excellent tools, strategies and extended resources for holding safe, productive and beneficial discussions about challenging topics. Especially useful is the center’s five-minute rule as shown on its website and included below:

The Five-Minute Rule

The five-minute rule is a way of taking an invisible or marginalized perspective and entertaining it respectfully for a short period of time.

Rule: Anyone who feels that a particular point of view is not being taken seriously has a right to point this out and call for this exercise to be used.

Discussion: The group then agrees to take five minutes to consider the merits of this perspective, refrain from criticizing it, and make every effort to believe it. Only those who can speak in support of it are allowed to speak, using the questions below as prompts. All critics must remain silent.

Questions and prompts:

  • What's interesting or helpful about this view?
  • What are some intriguing features that others might not have noticed?
  • What would be different if you believed this view, if you accepted it as true?
  • In what sense and under what conditions might this idea be true?

As an AP literature teacher, I’ve experienced success when students move beyond MLK’s “I Have a Dream” speech and explore other writing and primary sources, including the text of an interview, found on the landing page at The King Center.

The King Center has so many excellent online archives. My students have told me they enjoy finding King’s themes in literature that we have read or are reading. Each year, I also encourage them to bring in articles, art, song lyrics, etc., that they believe reflect King’s life’s work. Their findings always lead to excellent discussions and light-bulb moments.


Our culminating project regarding MLK Day varies every year. Some years, we have a Socratic seminar, and other years, students produce thematic poetry. No matter our end-of-unit project, I believe in providing time for students to reflect on lines from King’s speeches and aspects of King’s life through journaling. This year, I’m looking forward to incorporating some of the techniques educator Todd Finley discusses in his article, “The Importance of Student Journals and How to Respond Efficiently.” 

For the past several years, I’ve made journaling mandatory for students before they enter into whole group discussion. Inevitably, they will begin to take notice of the relationship between courage and necessity when rights are being oppressed. And that seems to be a significant takeaway as well as a wonderful entry point to empathy.

Additional Thinking

We also recommend that you check out two of our favorite resources as you begin to plan your MLK Day observance activities. We would love to hear about your plans and how the big day goes for you and your students as well!

MLK Day National Day of Service provides readers with multiple service opportunities on that day.

Freedom’s Ring is an online, animated and interactive version of MLK’s “I Have a Dream” speech that incorporates multimedia elements, provides historical and contextual information, and allows the viewer to see and compare King’s written speech with the words he actually spoke at the March on Washington. This is a project of the Martin Luther King, Jr. Research and Education Institute at Stanford University in collaboration with Beacon Press’ King Legacy Series.

Kindred Spirits
Kindred Spirits offers an opportunity for educators and school staff to gather in the exchange of ideas, resources, stories and lessons pertaining to human rights education and students’ social and emotional growth. Please join us and contribute your voice to a chorus of kindred spirits.

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Nicole Pelch
Nicole Pelch October 3, 2018, 2:01 pm

I'd like to make sure that I'm reading all the blog posts you put out. Is there a way I can sign up to receive notification when they come out? Thanks!

Susan Youssofi
Susan Youssofi December 13, 2018, 3:37 pm

Hi Nicole!

The easiest way is to sign up for the weekly enewsletter in your SML profile. We feature each new blog there. Thanks for your interest! - Susan

MarthaEClark92 November 26, 2021, 6:14 am

Thank you for Information! Exciting for more

MarthaEClark92 November 26, 2021, 6:14 am

Thank you for Information! Exciting for more