Saturday, January 4, 2014

My Best Lesson of the Year?

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

There is a progression here.  We start off learning about the positions of the Earth, Moon and Sun. We go to the outdoor classroom and act out their movements with giant inflatables. Then we learn about Land, Water & Air on the Earth.  We move into the study of Weather, Seasons and Polar Regions and the Equator.  So, by January we have a pretty solid understanding of how important sunlight is and which parts of the Earth get the most and the least.
In November we do a Cultural Study of Native Americans and Pilgrims. In December we learn about Holidays Around the World. We visit a different country each day, learn about what holiday traditions they have and make an ornament craft and a book page to represent it. We talk about how All People Need: Food, Clothing, Shelter, Recreation & Love but their Culture and Geography helps them find those things in different ways.  We also learn that even though the clothing, food, music, art & dance may be different, although the name of the holiday and the customs and treats may be different, All People spend time with their Families and Friends and celebrate being together.  And...that we are all the SAME on the inside.
OK, now it is January.  We are preparing for a very special day on the 3rd Monday of the month to honor a man whose picture is highly recognizable, and so is his name.  However, the details of the Civil Rights movement and story of WHY Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. is so beloved and honored are a little fuzzy to these 6 and 7 year olds.  We are very lucky to be part of a school community where we have a very diverse population of many cultures.  In my experiences in the past 20 plus years, differing cultures have barely been noticed by my first graders.  We study cultures, customs and traditions and we even celebrate diversity and share our own family and cultural traditions.  However, in day to day interactions, the kiddos are just kiddos. Some are great athletes or reading enthusiasts, some play the piano or dance.  Some take Karate or go to Chinese school on Saturdays, some are artists and some play baseball. Some are great at math and some have very neat handwriting. They are all just kiddos. Yes, I know.  I often say that I teach in "Candy Land".  A land where education is important and families are involved, and they are all friends and work together to make this a wonderful learning environment for all students.
To let my students know WHY Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. earned the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964, we have to let them know about a time when it was not "Candy Land".  It didn't happen in a world far, far, away, but right here in the United States of America.  And... it was not that long ago, not like George Washington long, or even Abraham Lincoln long.  It was a time that many moms, dads and certainly any grandmas and grandpas remember.  We read some children's stories about Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., one of my favorites is A Picture Book of Martin Luther King, Jr. by David A. Adler.  When I read the story, I start out by telling them that this story is true, and real, and that hearing it will make them FEEL many things.  They will feel happy sometimes, sad and confused sometimes, angry sometimes and very, very sad, but they will know WHY Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was such a great man, and WHY we are proud to honor him each year.  The children are appalled when they hear the part about Martin's good friend not being able to play with him any more, because of the color of his skin.  The children are appalled when they see signs on playgrounds and water fountains that say "White Only".  We need to stop and discuss what that means because they are unfamiliar with the term and the concept.  They cannot believe their ears when they hear what it means.  They love the part of the story when Martin meets Coretta and they decide to get married, (especially the girls).  Then they learn how Martin is travelling around the country to help workers earn equal pay for equal work, they think that's cool.  Then they hear about the story of Rosa Parks and how she went to jail because she sat on a seat on a bus.  They are in complete disbelief that their own country had real laws like that.  Their little world is shaken a bit now, because they always thought their country was fair, and that's why people came here. They think that it is totally awesome how Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. led the Civil Rights Movement with Peace and Respect for all.  They love that the laws about seats on buses were changed peacefully, that riders just refused to take the bus for a while, and found other ways to get around, even though it might be more difficult. Then they hear parts of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s wonderful speech.  They hear about his DREAM, they even look around and say, "It Came True!"
 Then they hear about how some are so angered by his work, that they even threw a bomb into his house and finally on the saddest day, shot him and he died.  They look around at their friends and cannot believe this story.  They hug each other and some are crying. Some move closer to me.
We talk about the color of our skin.  We talk about how the color of our skin can give us a clue about where on the Earth our ancestors lived.  Darker skin would mean closer to the equator.  The darker skin would provide more protection from the sun in places that get a lot of sun.  Lighter skin tells us only that our ancestors lived further from the equator, closer to the poles, where there is not as much sun.  The color of our skin today, cannot tell where we live today, it does not tell us if we are nice or mean, good or bad, smart or not, it only gives us a clue about where on the Earth our ancestors lived.
Now, we are ready for our little experiment.
We all stand in a circle and lift up one sleeve.
We put our arms in a circle.
And we look at the many beautiful and different shades that we see.
I ask them to think about whose skin is the most different.
They look.
Then they decide that it is me.
My skin is very, very light, with lots and lots and lots and lots of FRECKLES.
We talk about what that means, and how freckles happen. We talk about how we all use sunscreen, but that I have to be super, extra careful or my skin burns badly and quickly, and that I cannot ever get a "tan".
Then I ask them to sit down and close their eyes, and imagine that our school had a rule, that there could be NO TEACHERS WITH FRECKLES. 
They get very upset, and we discuss why.
I ask them if my skin being different means that I am not smart, or not nice.  They say "No", thankfully.  They say how silly that would be if any of US would be "not allowed" at our school because of our skin.  They say that we are a "Family" and we need each of us there to be complete. 
We talk about Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s dream and how it came true.  We talk about our president, Barack Obama and how far we have come in our country. Then we brainstorm about things that we would like to see get better in our world and each one writes, "I Have a Dream".  They write about civil rights everywhere in the world, and wish that things always get better.  They write about helping victims of natural disasters, they lived through Super Storm Sandy and have an idea about that.  They want to help those that are poor and do not have enough food.  They write about protecting animals and nature, about curing Juvenile Diabetes (one of their friends has that), and other diseases. They start thinking about HOW they can help to make these dreams come true.
Yes, I think that this is my best lesson every year.
Thank you, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. for helping me to show a group of first graders each year how powerful they can be, how much they can do and accomplish, and all with the example of your life's work, your honor, your courage, your strength, your love for humanity and your constant search for fairness and PEACE.