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Schools Celebrate Martin Luther King Jr. and His Dream

Each January many schools celebrate the life of Martin Luther King Jr. by bringing to life his words and his dream. Learn what some schools, including three that bear his name, do to keep the meaning of this holiday foremost in the minds of their students.

The first time students at Mill Creek Elementary School did a special Martin Luther King Jr. Day program, the hope was that they would learn something about why Martin Luther King Jr. Day is a national holiday. The program did that and much more, according Rod Smith, principal of the Lenexa, Kansas, school.

At the end of the program, when the boys and girls stood up, joined hands, and sang together "We Shall Overcome" as they marched out of the all-school assembly, "parents and teachers were touched and had tears and praises for the program," said Smith.

Since that first presentation, the program has become a school tradition. Students look forward to seeing the program and performing in it with enthusiasm, added their principal.

"Students carry signs and sing as they re-create the 'Freedom March' that took place in Washington, D. C.," explained Smith. "The bus scene with Rosa Parks is dramatized. Through music and speeches, the life of Dr. King is told... The art teacher, music teacher, and all of the fifth-grade classes work together."

The MLK Day Assembly

A common tool schools use to celebrate Martin Luther King Jr. Day is the whole-school assembly. The program often includes:
-- recitation of a short message or theme from King's life
-- a "Freedom March"
-- selections from landmark King speeches
-- music, singing, and dance
-- student-created skits based on King's life and his era
-- original poetry or essays

Smith reported that even the kindergartners recall information about the leader after attending the program. The knowledge they gain through drama and song sticks with them, and the fourth graders anxiously await their opportunity to be a part of the production as fifth graders. Each year the students have been asked to take their performance on the road, and they always present it at the local library.

"The boys and girls become a voice in the community, letting others know that being prejudiced hurts and that we should strive to live together in peace and harmony regardless of size, color, or ability," Smith stated. "Also they help keep the memory of Dr. King alive in a very creative way."

A Message and a Mission

At Martin Luther King Jr., Elementary School in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, teachers "strive to teach our students to remember that Dr. King's main message was one of peace," principal Joyce Harris observed. "He wanted people to do things in a right and peaceful manner."

The community had adopted the civil rights leader's name as a tribute long before Harris arrived at the school, but she quickly noted how students and teachers there regularly recited a King-like mantra: "If it is to be, it is up to me."

In celebration of King's birthday, students divide into teams and research King's life and accomplishments. The groups prepare presentations that highlight key events in King's life and in the lives of other pivotal people of the era. They share their work with the student body and parents during an assembly program that consists of songs, poems, charts, creative dances, a "Freedom March," and recitation of King's speeches.

One of the themes of Dr. King's 'I Have a Dream' speech was that he believed people should not be judged by the color of their skin; instead, they should be judged by the content of their character. "Our school carries out that mission by meeting the academic needs of our students and actively encouraging them to apply their knowledge in meaningful ways, such as the Martin Luther King Jr., assembly," Harris told Education World. "As students practice this process in small-group instruction, they must remember to display peace and equality among each other in a learning situation."

Nurturing the Dream

Slated to be called the "Houghton School," destiny intervened while Martin Luther King Jr. School was under construction in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The leader was assassinated, and the predominantly African-American community honored him by giving his name to the new building. Today the school teaches its students to appreciate all cultures, religions, races, and beliefs.

"We teach the children the importance of peaceful conflict resolution," principal Carole Learned-Miller told Education World. "As a K-8 school, we have students in our middle school act as peer mediators for our younger children."

The children read books about him and research his life throughout their education at the school, and for Martin Luther King Day the school holds a large assembly that focuses on King and his work.

"We refer to Dr. King whenever children are having difficulty, especially with social issues, by asking them to consider, 'What would Dr. King do in this situation?'" said Learned-Miller. "I want them to remember to see people's different religions, races, languages, and cultures as a positive; it is what makes our world beautiful and interesting.

"I also want them to remember that there is a peaceful resolution to every problem and that it is worth spending the time necessary to find it."

The school's "High Tech" after-school club is currently making a multimedia presentation about King. That presentation will run continuously in the school's front lobby. It will be similar to a national park exhibit and will feature videos from his life and students reading his speeches in their own words.

Another every-day focus at Cambridge's King School is on preparing students for college. "While our school just goes to eighth grade, we want children to leave us knowing how to prepare themselves to have every opportunity," explained Learned-Miller. "Toward that end, we have a class called AVID that teaches students how to get organized, develop study skills, and help themselves when they do not understand something."

Following the model of Dr. King, teachers also encourage students to look toward tomorrow and find their dreams. The staff and volunteer students from Harvard work with students to guide them to answer their own questions. In addition, the school holds monthly career seminars. During those presentations, professionals share with children how they have overcome obstacles to reach their career goals. Speakers have included a reporter, nurses, business people, a fireman, police officers, a Web designer, and others.

Living the dream

At least according to local folklore, Martin Luther King Jr. Elementary School in Ann Arbor, Michigan, was one of the first schools in the country to be named after Martin Luther King Jr. As was the case in Cambridge, the Ann Arbor board of education voted to bestow King's name on the school because it was still under construction at the time of King's death.

"Our school's mission statement was developed by parents and teachers to be inclusive of the teachings of Dr. King," said Kevin Karr, its principal. "Our motto is Living the Dream Everyday."

Each year the K-5 school puts on an assembly that honors King on his birthday. Every class discusses the leader, who he was, and his role in the struggle for civil rights. Books about King are spotlighted in the media center during the entire month of January.

"The all-school assembly is a review of his life," explained Karr. Most classes contribute something -- student poems, skits, songs, and other presentations.

"I send home a letter to parents, reminding them about the celebration of Dr. King's life and what it means for the community, but the invitation to join in our celebration comes not just from me but from the entire student body and staff."

Additional Resources

The Martin Luther King Jr., Research and Education Institute
Access papers, an autobiography, sermons, speeches, and related articles by and about Martin Luther King Jr.

Martin Luther King -- Biography
Here you will find a biography of King from

Martin Luther King Jr., National Historic Site
From the National Park Service, this site is devoted to important Atlanta landmarks from King's life.

Article by Cara Bafile
Education World®
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Last updated 1/09/2016