Do’s and Don’ts for Celebrating Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day with Young Children.

Do’s and Don’ts for celebrating Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day with young children.

Foundation

Do anti-bias education even when it seems intimidating or daunting. This list will help.

Don’t let hurt feelings get in your way as you read this list. Some actions come from good intentions but have negative impacts. This list includes a few of those. You may feel defensive or upset to read critique about something you’ve done or planned. Take a deep breath and keep moving forward; this work is crucial.

Don’t promote the idea that racism and prejudice only happened in the past.

Do give examples of current civil rights movements and activists. There are current social justice movements happening right now such as Black Lives Matter that are relevant to children’s lives right now.

Don’t sugarcoat discussions about unfairness. It’s common to use animals, colors, or inanimate objects to discuss diversity because we think this helps children understand a big concept. Mostly it alleviates adult discomfort about discussing racism and prejudice and the harm they cause. Young children learn best through concrete experience, so use relatable examples and avoid speaking symbolically.

Do offer accurate information and experiences for children to explore the 4 goals of Anti-bias education.

Throughout the Year

Do highlight other people who worked and still do work for social justice, especially Black women.

Don’t instill the idea that Dr. Martin Luther King was the only leader or person working towards racial equity. Just like Rosa Parks, Dr. King didn’t just happen to change minds and hearts, he worked strategically within disciplined organizations of courageous and skillful people.

Do model and incorporate anti-bias skills throughout the year. The second two anti-bias education goals are often the least taught and the most relevant to Dr. Martin Luther King’s legacy; identifying bias and taking action.

Don’t just discuss, read books, do activities about Dr. Martin Luther King only in January.

Do learn and grow each year in your own understanding of bias, the history of race and civil rights in the United States. To teach about Dr. King and the struggle for civil rights, learn about them. Read some of Dr. King’s essays and books.

Preparation

Do research on Dr. Martin Luther King, the civil rights movement of the past and the present.

Don’t celebrate or discuss the holiday with children without accurate and relevant background knowledge about the civil rights era (50’s – the early 70’s) and Dr. Martin Luther King.

Do reflect on racial justice as it applies to your current work with children.

Do celebrate Dr. Martin Luther King’s friends, family and colleagues.

Do practice telling this story and talking about racism with friends and colleagues before you try for the first time with children. Ask for feedback.

Do prepare yourself to make mistakes, knowing it’s part of your work as an educator. Be accountable to them and use them to grow in your abilities.

Implementation

Do acknowledge Dr. King’s race because it’s relevant to his work advocating for racial equity.

Don’t point out that Martin Luther King was Black like a particular child or staff member in your program. Teachers do this to support Black children’s racial identity and align the Black child with someone “everyone” admires. This seems great but it “others” the Black child because it’s rare that white children have this experience.

Do talk about human skin color and the bias against dark skin and Black people/people of African decent.

Don’t plan to tell this story once and not have it come up again.

Don’t promote the idea that he marched just so everyone could be friends and get along.

Don’t do activities or make crafts that only promote friendship. Dr. Martin Luther King and others were fighting against systematic racism and white supremacy, not an inability to make friends. Eliminating racism on all levels will promote more healthy cross-racial relationships.

Do incorporate a variety of media; get books from the library, make or find a playlist of justice oriented songs of the time, listen to radio stories or speeches and look at art or photographs from the time.

 

Notes

I’m curious how educators will use this list and what other resources they have found useful in celebrating the life and the social justice work of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Please share in the comments your thoughts and resources.

Thank you to the educators that suggested the creation of this list and my friends/co-conspirators Megan Pamela Ruth Madison and Kendra PeloJoaquin for the their insight and feedback.

Comments

  1. Thank you so much for this list of do’s and don’ts. I really appreciate the part about “don’t promote the idea that he marched just so everyone could be friends and get along” and emphasizing that this is about systematic racism and white supremacy. I will share this with my networks and hope others will, too.

    • Hi Barb,
      Thanks for sharing this with your network. I know it’s a big ask to give up the popular narrative that “Dr. King marched so we can all be friends.” Hopefully after reading my list more people will focus their celebration of Dr. King’s life with young children on dismantling systematic racism and white supremacy.

      🙂 Ijumaa

    • Ditto, Barb… that was my fav part too. So many great tips, even for older children. It took a Community of Activists to work with Dr. King…. also discussing and introducing Social Justice Movements and Organizations that are current is powerful and relevant … all year long. Thank you!

  2. Yes, Barb, I thought the same thing. Ijumaa’s warnings, things we are familiar with and those we are not warrant discussion, sharing with teammates and colleagues. Each one a conversation to have. The fullness of this topic is well represented with these reminders, hints and added resources. Thank you, Ijumaa

    • Hi Nancy,
      Thanks for commenting. It is my intention that this post can be shared as a discussion starter as people make decisions about how to celebrate Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day.

      🙂 Ijumaa

  3. Hi Ijumaa,
    This is a really rich place to start a conversation about how (and even whether, for folks who are starting out) to bring curriculum around the civil rights struggle to our classrooms. Thank you so much for writing it. One of the teaching teams at my center is going to look at it together in team meeting this week and decide where to go next.

    • Hi Kendra,

      Thank you for commenting and sharing how a team at your center is using the blog post! You can let them know I would love to hear what they decided to do and what happened with the children.

      🙂 Ijumaa

  4. Thank you for this clear list! I look forward to sharing it with homeschool families and hope it will be shared widely.

  5. Excellent “Do” list, Martin Luther King Jr.’s life,commitment and sacrifice
    warrants much more than a day off work or school and painting a wall or cleaning up a vacant lot as a ” MLK Community Service Day” .

  6. Jamie Clausen says:

    Thank you so much. I am coming as a parent into my child’s classroom to lead a discussion around his work this week and feel the pressure to both communicate at a level the kids will understand (grades 1-3) and be as honest and complex as the subject demands. Resources like this are very helpful.

    • Hi Jamie,
      I’m glad you found the resources helpful. Good luck with your discussion, I’m sure the children will be happy to talk to you about Dr. King.
      🙂 Ijumaa

  7. Rebecca l mckenna says:

    Great piece! May I suggest that you post this earlier in the year, like in August when you’re planning your year, in November/December to give you time to gather resources and remind those who missed the August post to be ready when you come back after winter break, in January for those who just remembered they have to do something, and at the end of the year to allow reflection in the classroom with the children and to help you think about your own summer plans and what you can do to continue to grow as an educator. This is so important in every classroom of our nation!

  8. Monica black says:

    I love this list. Thank you. I am often sharing the importance of not just reading about Dr. King but promoting and doing things that celebrate his legacy.

    • Hi Monica,
      Thank you for your comment, I agree it’s not enough to be inspired we have to actively work on creating an equitable and just world.
      Ijumaa

  9. Joannie Swigert says:

    So often we forget the importance of integrating equality throughout the year. It is not a “unit” on diversity and needs to be woven into classroom activities throughout the year. “Living it” helps it come alive. We may make mistakes but that becomes part of the lesson. Thanks for sharing.

    • Hi Joannie,
      Thank you for your comment reinforcing the idea that learning about social justice and taking action can and should happen throughout the school year. We have to live it or we won’t achieve the social change we need.

      Ijumaa

  10. Do you have any specific resources for the kindergarten set? I was not happy with the weekly reader’s handling of MLK as they just said “he wrote books and led marches to get unfair laws changed”. But I am woefully ignorant of black history myself so I have a lot to learn as well.

    • Hi Lisa,

      Thanks for your question. Perhaps a good place to start after you do some self study is to have a conversation about the weekly reader article and expand on why Dr. King and other wrote, spoke, and took social action. Then discuss current unfairness that is happening in their lives and advocate and take social action.
      Ijumaa

  11. Margaret Betts says:

    I think this list is great. I might add “Do teach the vocabulary of the movement explicitly.” When we use the words “prejudice” “racism” “injustice” “segregation” etc sometimes we don’t take time to really teach them. If we teach those words explicitly then we make it possible for students to have the language to express their discoveries of bias or advocacy in the future.

    • Hi Margaret,
      I appreciate your suggestion and agree it’s always important to understand the meaning of the vocabulary we use. In addition to supporting children in understanding “the vocabulary of the movement.”

      Thanks for commenting,
      Ijumaa

  12. I would love to see any examples of appropriate, experiential activities which people might do with their elementary classes. I have incorporated activities every year which are intended to demonstrate the irrationality of surface-based bias (bias based upon appearance, background, religion, class) and they seem to have impact but I know I can do better. Experiences seem to convey much more than abstract lessons at this age, so long as the parallels to real life are drawn and the actions/experiences are defined with words.

    Also, what are some ideas for concrete action which can be given to children in the elementary age group? Giving them the tools to address injustice and bias at their level of ability, not just in the future when they are adults. I have tried to instill the importance of speaking up when you see someone being wronged, speaking up when anyone (including your elders) acts or speaks in racist ways, and the culpability we all have when we witness but do not act. I’d like to hear how others approach this, and what has been successful.

    Finally, can other educators speak to mistakes they’ve made in the past when working on anti-bias education? This article addresses a few which I know many “well-meaning white people” have made, but I know I’ve made others outside of this list as well.

    Thank you for this article.

  13. Thank you — I have been looking for resources for how to have a well-rounded, justice-minded conversation with my son around Martin Luther King Day and what it means for our past, present and future.

  14. Syd Golston says:

    Where is King’s nonviolence? His pacifism and international leadership for justice everywhere ? It would be a good question for children to answer: What do you think are the reasons to honor him – or anyone in past or present – with a Nobel PEACE Prize? It is important to center Dr. King as a WORLD leader too. I think young students can and should understand that.

  15. Eliana Elias says:

    Ijumaa, I finally read the post in detail and I want to thank you for putting this together. This is a wonderful resource for all of us and I will be using it with my sites.

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