7 resources for enhancing lessons around MLK and civil rights

Monday is Martin Luther King Jr. Day, and while most schools dismiss class for the holiday, there is still time to discuss the importance of the civil rights leaders. The day is a great jumping-off point for lessons touch on broad topics such as slavery, the civil rights movement, current issues involving police, and the school-to-prison pipeline.

A number of resources are available to help plan lessons around MLK Day. Below are seven good places to start.

National Education Association

The National Education Association has a whole toolbox dedicated to MLK day, pooling resources from across the web and arranging them by grade level. For example, teachers in grades K-2 might use the "Dr. King's Dream Speech" lesson, which has students listen to King's most famous speech and then write down their own dreams for America. Guiding questions for this lesson range from defining the term 'civil rights' to identifying what parts of King's dream have or have not been realized.

Students in grades 9-12, on the other hand, have lessons that ask them to pull from prior knowledge to connect to other texts and people. For example, the lesson from read, write, think entitled "I Have a Dream: Exploring Nonviolence in Young Adult Texts" asks students to "identify how the rapper, Common and writer, Walter Dean Myers, reinterprets Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream of nonviolence in their own works." The NEA resources also come with rubrics to help grade answers, if you choose to do so. 

National Park Service

The National Park Service is another great resource for civil rights-related lessons and activities, with lessons that come fully sourced and featuring links to downloadable documents and PDFs. A lesson called "The Next Generation" deals with the civil rights movement from the context of hip hop, asking what issues are the central concern of the hip hop generation. Allowing students to understand that King's work was not finished and that issues still persist is critical to their understanding of the world as it exists today. Helping students understand the present will allow them to look to the future and begin thinking about the role they want to play.

Teaching Tolerance

Before you do anything in your classroom for MLK Day, read this list of "dos" and "don'ts" from the Southern Poverty Law Center's "Teaching Tolerance." The list explains that the history of the civil rights movement should not be limited to one day or month, additionally reminding teachers that King's message was not just about "blacks and whites" but rather he spoke about gendered stereotypes, poverty, and privilege, making the holiday a good time to also dive into these topics.

PBS News Hour Extra

PBS News Hour Extra has seven engaging digital activities released in August 2013 for the 50th Anniversary of the March on Washington. One plan — "Racial equality: how far have we come and how far do we have to go?" —​ asks students to consider all of the brave men and women who pushed back against racism, whether it was sitting in a certain seat, attending an all-white school, or signing up to play baseball, and then consider what they would march for.

The lesson even comes with music suggestions, including “Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me ’round” by Sweet Honey In The Rock, as students reflect on the questions. And it incorporates the game "four corners," where students go to a corner of a room to show their answer to a question. These could also work as debate or fishbowl questions: Where are we on the road to true racial equality in our country? How much further do you think we still need to come?

New York Times Learning Network

The New York Times' Learning Network has suggestions for MLK Day, too, encouraging classrooms to take a look at the paper's historical front pages and articles. For example, students can read, “Martin Luther King Wins The Nobel Prize for Peace” from Oct. 15, 1962. Also listed: a number of opinion pieces by important thought leaders which could help students better understand their own trains of thought.

Finishing the Dream

Finishing The Dream is a project by NBC collecting over one hundred archival videos and snippets of town hall conversations from across America. Through this content, students can gain deeper insight on the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision, as well as challengers, like Malcom X, who pushed back against King's nonviolent resistance.

Entertainment Weekly's 'Selma' Playlist

Any and all of these lessons could incorporate music that "Selma" music supervisor Morgan Rhodes wanted to use but had to leave out of the acclaimed movie about the game-changing Alabama march led by King from Selma to Montgomery. Rhodes compiled a playlist of songs for Entertainment Weekly that she had considered using, and which teachers can quietly play while they have students reflect on questions or work independently.

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Filed Under: K12
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