5 Ways Families Can Honor Martin Luther King, Jr. and His Legacy

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ways to honor Martin Luther King, Jr.

Schools around the United States often dedicate the days leading up to Martin Luther King, Jr. Day to lesson plans and literacy activities that revolve around peaceful protests, unpacking the famous "I Have a Dream" speech, and other scratch-the-surface attempts to teach kids about the legacy and complexity of the civil rights movement Martin Luther King, Jr. (MLK) helped to lead.

Although well-intentioned, the lessons and stories we use to teach kids about MLK are often standalone entities, disconnected from the regular curriculum in the classroom. If we are going to empower our kids to be changemakers then they have to understand that change isn't easy and it involves a lot of risk-taking, mistakes, and hard work. They also need to understand the greater concepts and messages that civil rights leaders like Martin Luther King, Jr. were trying to convey.

ways to honor Martin Luther King, Jr.

Here are five ways you can help your child begin to understand the complexity of the civil rights movement while empowering them to become change-agents:

Teach kids to embrace their identity. Martin Luther King, Jr. called upon people to love each other regardless of skin color. Make sure not to confuse his message with the "kids are colorblind" trope, which has been disproven by research. The message is clear: kids who are informed about race and differences are more inclusive and ready to fight against injustice when they see it. Use these activities to explore what diversity is with your child and make sure to provide examples of how people's differences can make a positive change in the world.

  • Loveliness in Diversity. This activity asks children to discuss what diversity is and why the world is a better place because of all the different people in it. Children will write their very own poem about the beauty in diversity.
  • Drawn Together. This lesson plan explores how appreciating each other's differences can bring people together.
  • Appreciating Diversity and Differences. This lesson plan, which adults as well as educators can easily follow, teaches kids to articulate how they appreciate diversity and differences by writing a story or creating artwork.
  • My Rich Cultural Heritage. This activity teaches kids the importance of social engagement, self-awareness, and the appreciation of diversity.

Talk to your kids about the importance of service to others. Help your child become comfortable with service to others by volunteering in your community. Research organizations including food banks, programs like Meals on Wheels, locally run thrift shops, humane societies, Goodwill, and local nursing or assisted living homes. Check the organization's website for volunteer opportunities, or reach out to the program director to see what opportunities are coming up. Set up time and space to volunteer once a month with your child. By using your own two hands and putting in the work to drive change in your community, you will honor MLK and continue his legacy.

books to help children learn about Martin Luther King, Jr.

Read books that focus on Martin Luther King, Jr.'s activism. While there are many books that talk about MLK and his legacy, try to find books that dig deep. Here are some ideas:

  • Lower Elementary: I am Martin Luther King, Jr. from the Ordinary People Change the World Series is a great way to introduce kids to MLK and how he bravely led the way toward racial equality in America.
    • Before reading: ask your child to think about someone they look up to. Can they think of some words that describe this person? Explain to your child that they are going to learn about a very important person named Martin Luther King, Jr.
    • During reading: pause and ask your child to think about something interesting they learned about MLK or something they are wondering about.
    • After reading: have your child create a piece of artwork to express what they learned from reading the story.
  • Upper Elementary: A Place to Land by Barry Wittenstein and Jerry Pinkney illustrates the role a community of activists played in writing the renowned "I Have a Dream" speech through the use of lyrical prose and beautiful illustrations. Here are some activities you can use to engage your little before, during, and after reading this beautiful book:
    • Before reading: provide child-friendly definitions of important words, such as these from The Little Book of Little Activists or Merriam Webster Learner's Dictionary:
      • protest: disrupting the usual flow of things so you can call attention to an injustice and demand that it be changed
      • activist: someone who takes action in order to create social change
      • democracy: a form of government in which people choose leaders by voting
    • During reading: pause to define tricky and academic words, learn more about the people mentioned in the book, and clarify any difficult concepts. Point out stanzas in the text that reinforce what MLK stood for and his passion for driving change.
    • After reading: jot down all of the questions your child still has. Support them in researching the answers and learning more about other leaders of the civil rights movement. Challenge your child to create a poster, poem, play, or piece of artwork to express what they learned from their research.

    Extend your learning of black changemakers. Repeat after me: black history is American history. To truly teach the message Martin Luther King, Jr. wanted us to learn, we must teach our children about black changemakers all year long. Books like Young Gifted and Black: Meet 52 Black Heroes from Past and Present by Jamia Wilson and Andrea Pippins as well as Black Women in Science by Kimberly Brown Pellum, Ph.D., and Little Legends: Exceptional Men in Black History by Vashti Harrison and Kwesi Johnson provide in depth information about black trailblazers and change agents. Extend your child's learning by checking out black educator-created resources such as Mamademic's Black History is American History mini monthly curriculum that teaches children (and their parents) about black history all year long.

    Teach kids about how change really happens. Depending on your child's age, there are many ways to teach kids how to stand up for what they believe. Start with books like A is for Activist by Innosanto Nagara and the aforementioned The Little Book of Little Activists by Penguin Young Readers. These books teach kids of all ages that they are never too young to care about their community or stand up for their beliefs. The books will also unpack difficult concepts, teach kids what the First Amendment is, and how to exercise their rights in their day-to-day lives. Extend their learning by checking out these activities:
    • Take a Stand. This activity will help give your child the tools to resist inappropriate social pressures and learn to practice empathy and mindful communication.
    • Community Mobile. In this social emotional learning activity, you and your child will read a story and create a community mobile that describes aspects of healthy relationships (such as listening, gratitude, appreciation, teamwork, and so on) in order to explore what it means to live in a supportive community.

    Martin Luther King, Jr. Day is a great opportunity to lead an ongoing exploration of the black experience in the United States and its history, as well as learning about the current experiences of black Americans. To take your family's learning a step further, check out these resources:
    About the Author

    April Brown (M.Ed) is a learning designer, writer, and education consultant based in Austin, TX. She is passionate about developing inclusive practices, materials, environments, and mindsets. Check out her blog, Mrs. Brown’s Blog: a safe space to tell stories, reflect on best practices in education, and strive to parent from the heart.

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