On the third Monday in January each year, we commemorate the life of civil rights activist Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., born on January 15, 1929. While students will not have school on Monday, January 20 to observe the day, we have collected a list of compelling activities teachers can integrate into normal lesson planning before or after the event. Join us as we celebrate Dr. King and the profound impact he made on American history and culture.
1) Write a birthday card to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Have your class write and illustrate a birthday card to Dr. King. Prompt them to think about Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” Speech. Has his dream been recognized today? Have students write how they can help achieve his dream through their daily words and actions.
2) Conduct a Rhetorical Analysis of “I Have a Dream”
Instruct your class to read and listen to Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech that he delivered at the March on Washington in August 1963. What rhetorical devices did he employ that made the speech so impactful? What symbolism, imagery, metaphors, and other figurative language did he use, and what effect did it have on the speech? Have your students write their own persuasive essay experimenting with Dr. King’s style.
3) Investigate History with Primary Sources
Martin Luther King, Jr. Day provides a unique opportunity to practice asking questions and finding answers to questions about history — and about people, past and present. To inspire your lesson planning, below are a few examples of exciting primary sources related to Dr. King’s legacy and the civil rights movement, each with examples of themes or discussion topics designed to guide and inspire the development of supporting and compelling questions.
4) Interview Friends and Family Who Remember the Civil Rights Movement
Teaching Tolerance outlines an engaging lesson plan where students study various civil movements from the perspective of those who lived through them. Instruct your class to research the Civil Rights Movement on the ’50s and ’60s, and, using oral history skills, come up with a list of questions to ask a friend, family member, or neighbor who was alive during that time. Students can record their interview and use it to write a report on what they learned. Encourage an open class discussion on civil movements. Which movements exist today and how do they compare to the Civil Rights Movement 60 years ago?
5) Go on a Virtual Visit to the The National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis
If you’re not within driving distance from Memphis, Tennessee for a field trip, consider touring The National Civil Rights Museum online instead. Founded in 1991, the museum features a variety of exhibitions that guide visitors through over 500 years of history, beginning with slavery and the Civil War, to contemporary civil rights movements that brought transformative culture shifts at the end of the 20th century. Students can see firsthand — or virtually — exhibits on the Montgomery Bus Boycott, slavery in America, and the Freedom Rides of 1961. Learn about the student sit-in movement, and encourage students to think about the power they too have to inspire change.
6) Explore what “Race” Really Is
Learning about Dr. King’s legacy doesn’t have to be limited to just English Language Arts and Social Studies classes. Understand that the concept of “race” does not exist biologically, and explore the fact that despite tiny genetic variations, the DNA of any two people in the world is 99.9 percent identical.
7) Organize a “Mix it Up” Lunch
Teaching Tolerance hosts a “Mix it Up At Lunch Day” annually, but your students can participate any time throughout the year. To honor Dr. King, instruct your students to sit with someone different at lunch than they normally do (for one day, or someone different every day for the entire week!). Research has demonstrated that these kinds of social and emotional learning activities can reduce prejudice and build friendships.
8) Listen to Music of the Civil Rights Era
Read about the Freedom Riders and learn about the music that inspired profound change throughout the 1960s. How is music today used to impact politics and achieve social justice?