Teaching young students about the legacy of King

spauff@ledger-enquirer.comJanuary 15, 2012 

Every January, when Yolonda Phillips teaches her first-graders at Phenix City Elementary about Martin Luther King Jr., the students recognize King’s picture but they also have a lot of questions.

They talk about who he was, where he lived and his “I Have a Dream” speech. The kids ask questions like, “Where did he march?” and “How many kids did he have?” She answers tougher questions, like “How did he die?” in terms they can understand, explaining that he was shot while working for equal rights for people of all races.

“The introduction is so important,” Phillips said of her students’ first lessons about King. “They often hear his name. We’re introducing them at this grade level to Dr. Martin Luther King and letting them know there is something outside of Phenix City, talking about what he went up against and how he wanted to change things and truly make life better.”

In Hayley Meeks’ fourth grade class, students learn about King’s role in Alabama history.

“They know about the holiday. They know he’s important. They don’t know all the things he accomplished,” she said, adding that students often ask questions about King’s march on Washington in 1963.

Samantha Milligan, a fifth-grade teacher, said her students sometimes ask about segregation.

“Their biggest interest is they don’t understand why things were the way they were,” she said. I try my best to explain that things were different.”

The teachers use a variety of methods to teach about King. In first grade, it’s simple activities like holding a birthday celebration for King and taking their own “I have a dream” pledge. Meeks said she will show videos of King’s speeches and do activities on a Smartboard, an interactive white board, which she said helps keep their interest.

“They can hear it and see it instead of me just talking to them about it,” she said.

Milligan said her students also talk and write about their own dreams, in response to King’s “I Have a Dream” speech.

“Having to write about it, they can kind of relate,” she said. “They write about ‘this is what I’d like from my life, our school, our area.’”

Keneesha Kalpen is a special education teacher for children in kindergarten through third grade at the school.

“We read about Dr. King,” she said. “We discuss some of the things that were different then -- why they had to sit at the back of the bus, why black people and white people couldn’t sit together, and how things would be different if we did that now. They couldn’t fathom it.”

She also teaches the kids that discrimination still hasn’t gone away, but takes different forms -- like making fun of someone who doesn’t wear the coolest shoes or comes from a low-income home.

“It doesn’t mean because someone has more or the best things that they are better than you,” she said. “They don’t realize that is still discrimination. It’s a part of everyday life.”

King’s message is important to the students she teaches, she said.

“They do know they are a little different from other kids. And even though they are all in a room together, some are at different levels,” she said. “We talk about the things that make them different and how differences make us unique.”

Sara Pauff, 706-320-4469

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