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5 Classroom Activities for a Meaningful Martin Luther King Jr Day

Jan 1, 2019

By Jill Eulberg, Veteran Educator, M.S. Special Education 

Today's students are growing up in times that bear resemblance to the 1960s civil rights movement. As our country celebrates Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., his legacy and teachings remain particularly significant. Engaging in meaningful classroom activities can help today's students better understand our country's history and its direct links to the past.

Here are a few activities to consider for any age group, as well as some inspirational quotes from Dr. King to get you and your students motivated.

1. Serve Others

"Life's most persistent and urgent question is, 'What are you doing for others?"

Dr. King taught the importance of serving others. In his honor, many communities celebrate Martin Luther King Jr. Day with a day of service. Teachers can make Martin Luther King Jr. Day particularly meaningful for their classes by creating a service project. Students of all ages can develop their own service project for their school or community. If you need ideas or lesson plans, check out the Corporation for National and Community Service.

2. Connect with a Classroom

"We may have all come on different ships, but we're in the same boat now."

Learning about others and appreciating differences was a key message from Dr. King. Partnering with a classroom from another part of the country or world is a great way for students to learn firsthand about other cultures.

If you don't know where to start, try ePals. This free online service allows teachers to connect with classrooms from all over the world. Teachers can choose to Skype, launch a pen pal program, or work together on joint classroom projects. Browse current available collaborations or create your own.

3. Mix Up Lunch

"In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends."

Students report that lunchrooms are one of the most cliquey and segregated places in a school—students tend to sit with others like themselves and rarely venture out of their comfort zone. Teaching Tolerance, a website dedicated to teaching students about diversity, recently held an international event called Mix It Up at Lunch Day. According to the website, "Mix It Up at Lunch Day is an international campaign that encourages students to identify, question, and cross social boundaries."

So why not host your own Mix It Up at Lunch Day? Martin Luther King Jr. Day is a great opportunity for students of all ages to connect and break down social barriers by purposefully sitting with different students at lunch.

4. Discuss Social Experiments

"Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be."

Over the years, teachers and sociologists have conducted many poignant and insightful social experiments about diversity. The information they've gleaned is extremely valuable, so showing videos of these experiments in class and engaging in open, honest classroom discussions would be a great activity for many secondary students.

Shortly after the death of Dr. Martin Luther King, third-grade teacher Jane Elliott conducted an experiment with her students. In this renowned experiment, known as A Class Divided, Elliott systematically treated students differently based on the color of their eyes. The result was life-changing for the participating students and the millions of people who have since watched and learned through their experience. (Teachers should note there are several racial epithets used in the video, so it's most appropriate for secondary students who can better understand the context in which this language was used.)

The $100 Race is another great option for initiating discussion. Conducted by a college teacher, this social experiment illuminates Dr. King's messages about understanding privilege and social justice through a student race in a schoolyard. Best utilized with students in middle or high school, this video offers a wealth of classroom activities and discussion opportunities on race, poverty, and the numerous social-economic variables that deeply affect our society.

5. Hold a Modern Day Peaceful Protest

"He who accepts evil without protesting against it is really cooperating with it."

Dr. King's legacy of peaceful protests and demonstrations has direct ties to the protest movements happening today, such as #TakeAKnee, Standing Rock, and the Women's March. These modern-day protests are packed with similarities to Dr. King's efforts, which can make for interesting classroom discussions or debates. Teaching Tolerance offers lesson plans and questions to help guide your discussions or classroom activities on the current #TakeAKnee movement. Teachers could also use these topics to facilitate their own class debates, champion a cause, or organize their own ideas for a real or pseudo-protest.

Dr. King's teachings are as relevant and important today as they've ever been. Through timely and meaningful classroom activities, students can gain firsthand experience with Dr. King's legacy and a better understanding of the many reasons our country honors and celebrates the life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

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