King Day presents opportunity for celebration, teaching

Educators, historians discuss challenges of teaching his life, legacy

  • Leith Walk pupils Lariel Yarrall, left, and Breona Shannon dance to Stevie Wonder's "Happy Birthday" tribute to King.
Leith Walk pupils Lariel Yarrall, left, and Breona Shannon… (Kenneth K. Lam, Baltimore…)
January 17, 2011|By Raven L. Hill, The Baltimore Sun

All of the elements were in place at Leith Walk Elementary School for a proper Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. holiday celebration.

Students at the Northeast Baltimore school were prepped with songs from the civil rights movement; Stevie Wonder's "Happy Birthday" was on deck. They'd completed assignments detailing their own dreams earlier in the week and listened in awe as Tony Marshall, who works for the school system, recited the "I Have a Dream" speech, excerpts from the work that he had learned decades earlier as a fourth-grader at Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Elementary School.

For many schoolchildren, this kind of celebration has been a hallmark of King Day ever since the holiday, which is marked around the nation today, was established 25 years ago. But some experts and educators say that students need to know more about King's life and legacy to place him in historical context.

"There was a long legacy of heroes and 'she-roes' that led to Dr. King," said Raymond A. Winbush, director of the Institute of Urban Research at Morgan State University. "As educators, we've got to contextualize Dr. King in the struggle for human rights, and we just don't do that."

At Leith Walk, however, teaching King doesn't just happen in a one-day celebration. Teachers and administrators said Friday that they try to link King to modern-day history makers such as President Barack Obama, introduce students to lesser-known figures from the civil rights movement, and show how concepts like nonviolence are relevant to their own lives. And for the littlest learners, the 4- and 5-year-olds, it requires breaking down King's teachings to child-friendly concepts, like being fair and embracing differences.

Elementary schoolchildren need to see that King was just like them, said Michelle R. Scott, an associate history professor at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.

"It's helpful to take him down from the pedestal," Scott said, "and show him as a real, working man, struggling against segregation and discrimination."

The civil rights legend has almost become "St. Martin" to schoolchildren, a larger-than-life figure whose sole achievement was delivering a speech about a dream, Winbush said.

"It's like we boiled him down to four words — 'I have a dream' — the same way we've boiled Malcolm X down to 'by any means necessary,'" he said. "I think the students are in danger of getting an image of Dr. King … ascending into heaven."

That image is inconsistent with how King was viewed before his death in 1968, Winbush said.

"Dr. King was a peacemaker but the vast majority of people in this country, black and white, viewed him as a troublemaker because he told this country, 'Let's live up to what's in the Constitution and Declaration of Independence.' I hope that students and teachers go beyond those four words and realize that he lived after the 'I Have a Dream' speech," he said.

Scott says she always asks her first-year students about their knowledge of African-American history. It always seems to boil down to two things — slavery and King, she said.

When she presses them on their knowledge of King, she said that, too, seems limited.

"They know that he marched and that he had a dream," she said. "If you want students to learn about the movement and King's place in it, then you have to talk about civil rights earlier than the 1950s. You can't just get from slavery to King."

Students would benefit from seeing more of King's works, such as the "Letter from a Birmingham Jail" and his Sunday sermons, getting more exposure to his ideas on poverty and learning more about the March on Washington to get a better sense of how it all fits together, Scott said.

The challenge, however, is fitting everything into the school day, educators said.

Carla Jackson, principal of Grove Park Elementary/Middle School in Northwest Baltimore, said she encourages teachers to use King as a backdrop for other concepts and lessons on character.

"It really is a time issue, but we infuse it into what we do," Jackson said.

At Leith Walk last week, fifth-grade students excitedly turned toward teacher Susan Evans as soon as they heard King's reference to the Declaration of Independence in the "I Have a Dream" speech. They had studied the Declaration of Independence earlier in the week.

"They're making those connections," Evans said.

Teachers at Leith Walk said they find that students take a greater interest in the King holiday than many others that commemorate historical figures.

"It's someone who looks just like them," said Bernadette Russell, a third-grade teacher.

Evans agreed. "Even though he's from history, he's not that far removed," she said.

Joyce H. Pertee, a 38-year teacher, said she doesn't remember as much excitement around the first King holiday in 1986.

"It was the beginning," she said. "Now it's like people just talk about him 365 days a year. They just keep talking about the things that he's accomplished and that this is where we are today."

Students seemed most inspired by King's dream and interested in learning more about his life — his children's names, his age when he got married, where he and his wife, Coretta, spent their honeymoon, why the March on Washington was held in D.C., the name of his assassin.

But on certain aspects, they were clear.

"He did a lot for the country and he was a major part in history," fifth-grader Isaiah Pride said.

His classmate, Lariel Yarrow, added, "He was courageous. He did everything that he could to stop segregation and to help black people become what they want to be today."

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