How One Teacher and Her Students Celebrated Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day

by Dr. Melissa Collins, second grade teacher in Shelby County Schools

“Intelligence plus character – that is the goal of true education.” –Dr. Martin Luther King, Mr.

As a primary teacher, I believe that it is never too early to incorporate themes of social justice into the classroom alongside instruction in our standards. As I teach content and skills, I also teach my students how to be peaceful and kind to others. I provide the opportunity for them to talk to their peers daily to discuss problems in our school, community, or the world. Then they come up with solutions to solve everyday problems so that they are learning our standards and contributing to a more civil society.

Students participating in the Children's Demonstration March as they celebrate Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day.

Students participating in the Children’s Demonstration March.

For example, to help promote social justice this month, my students read a series of non-fiction texts pertaining to the civil rights movement. Through close reading, my students annotated the text and asked critical questions of their peers using question starters.  As a culminating task, they created peaceful demonstration signs promoting peace and social justice. I also invited a representative from the National Civil Rights Museum here in Memphis to talk to my students about equality, equity, and fairness. Simultaneously, we were connected to my partner class from New Jersey. During this time, both classes reflected over Dr. King’s dreams of non-violence in a peaceful world before leading a Children’s Demonstration March on the same day and at the same time at their respective schools. Students dressed in their Sunday best as they reenacted this historic civil right event, and we used Facebook live to virtually capture the moment. Afterward, the museum representative conducted a school-wide program for all John P. Freeman Optional students which promoted personal growth and well-being.

Students and Civil Right Museum representative participating in the Children’s Demonstration March

Through this project, we were able to tie multiple social studies and English language arts standards to real-world experiences for our students. And, as a teacher, it touched my heart to witness my students participating in such a historical event. I’m sure that they will never forget that timeless moment of peaceful marching in celebration of what would have been Dr. King’s 90th birthday. When the students returned to school, I provided them with an opportunity to reflect over their experience, and students shared words such as: important, special, surprised, and memorable to explain their feelings. My class was truly in an inclusive place for learning.

Along with a fellow colleague from Florida, we have decided to extend this project to include other classes around the globe, and we are calling it the “Peace Sign Project.” Teachers are invited to talk about social justice in their classrooms. Then their students can conduct research, read, write, reflect, and create signs that represent hope, justice, and harmony in the world. On February 28th, the classes that join can lead a peaceful, silent march at their schools or in their communities showing solidarity for this cause and tweet about their events with the hashtag #PeaceSignProject. I invite you to join us!

Ultimately, it is my goal for students to contribute to society by being the change that they want to see in their school, community, nation, and world. Learning does not have to occur only in the classroom; it can happen right outside your classroom walls. As Tennessee teachers, we must challenge ourselves to use our curriculum and standards to be innovators for our scholars. When we help students learn content and skills and give them opportunities to apply them in authentic and powerful ways, education can be a vehicle to create change for all Tennessee students.  

Dr. Melissa Collins teaches second grade at John P. Freeman Optional School in Memphis. Dr. Collins is a National Board Certified teacher, was one of six U.S. finalists for the 2018 Global Teacher Prize, and is an NEA Global Teaching Fellow.