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Exploring the
Lessons Of Dr. King

Through films, photographs, and discussions, Bennet Middle School's Royal 7 seventh grade team spends a Team Day learning more about the life and times of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Their own dreams for the future reflect an understanding of Dr. King's mission. Included: Descriptions of lessons about Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the civil rights movement in the U.S.

The America that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. envisioned might look a lot like Bennet Middle School.

Bennet's classrooms are an example of the multicultural ideal. They are a mix of different races, and students from different backgrounds interact in and outside of classes.

Still, while Bennet has made more strides than most institutions in the multicultural area, the Royal 7 teachers want to ensure their students understand the impact of Dr. King's work on American society, and what life used to be like for African-Americans in the South just 40 years ago.

Two days after the holiday honoring Dr. King (since school was closed January 17), the Royal 7's took a break from their regular schedule, and used a team day to weave King's message and lessons about integration and equality into activities. The team day program also tied in with the language arts unit focusing on readings about prejudice and civil rights.

And when they have a chance to express their own dreams, many students' wishes reflect the spirit of Dr. King's hopes and goals for the nation.

"We usually do a team day around Dr. King," says Jenna Brohinsky, language arts teacher and team leader. "We do an African-American achievement project in February, this is sort of the start to it. Not everyone knows about Dr. King. They know bits and pieces."

Team days also are a chance for teachers to see students in a different light, and interact with students they normally don't see every day, she adds.

For the January team day, students divide into groups, and attend three sessions in the morning. In the afternoon, after specials and lunch, they watch the film, Selma, Lord, Selma, about how two young girls become inspired by the civil rights movement and the efforts to help African-Americans in Selma, Alabama, register to vote in 1965.

Some already had seen it. "This movie is sad at the end," one girl whispers.


Science teacher David Sutherland and language arts teacher Brandon Kienle start by showing students an excerpt from the film, Eyes on the Prize; the footage shows the abuse of civil rights marchers, including police officers in Alabama, turning fire hoses and police dogs on people, and children being arrested for marching.

How have things changed? Mr. Kienle asks. "Can you see we are all different and all going to school together? Did you know that kids your age were marching for freedom?"

The narrator in the film notes that the water pressure from the hoses was strong enough to strip the bark off a tree.

"It was sad," one girl says after watching the film clip.

Then the teachers pass out photographs capturing segregation in the 1960's -- including signs saying "Whites Only," separate water fountains for whites and blacks, marchers defending themselves against the fire hoses, a "colored" waiting room, Dr. King being arrested, and the Montgomery, Alabama, bus boycott.

"You can see the waiting rooms were separate, but not equal," Mr. Kienle says.

The teachers ask students to write about their photograph, and they will earn 25 percent each for writing between five and seven complete sentences, neatness, spelling and grammar, and including specific detail.

One girl, writing about her photo of protesters holding a sign that says, "Jim Crow Must Go," writes, "It made me sad, because my grandma told me about how when she was marching down there and got arrested, just for freedom."

Mr. Sutherland tells the girl how fortunate she is, to have a grandmother who shares these stories, and urges students to talk with their parents and grandparents, and record their stories, if possible.

About the photo of King being arrested, a boy writes, "His facial expression says he's angry and scared. He shouldn't be arrested for speaking his mind."


Social studies teacher Gary Tracey challenges students to chart the places where Dr. King brought his message.

"Why do we get the day off?" he asks students.

"To honor the work he did for the civil rights movement," a girl responds.

Students read biographies of Dr. King, and then mark on U.S. maps places Dr. King visited during his lifetime.

"I hope you've gotten a better idea of the places where Dr. King worked," Mr. Tracey tells students.


Understanding Dr. King's dreams -- and their own -- is the topic of discussion in the session with Ms. Brohinsky and math teacher Taryn Kutniewski. Students identify some of Dr. King's dreams after listening to his famous speech at the Lincoln Memorial, and then write down and illustrate their own dreams.

From the very personal to the very global, and sometimes a mixture of both, students list their dreams; to be rich; to get higher grades; "to be a certified paralegal making lots of money and be a good wife and loving mother;" "that there will be no racism in any state or country;" to be "a famous actress, make a lot of money, and give a lot to charity," a girl writes, drawing a picture of a Red Cross office surrounded by bags of money.

A student wants to live in the White House. "You are not the only one," Ms. Brohinsky jokes. "You are going to have some competition."

"I have a dream that one day, everyone will have enough money," someone else writes.


The day ends with students watching the film, Selma, Lord, Selma, in their homebase classes, but before they see the movie, Ms. Brohinsky poses some questions: How do you think prejudice today might be different from prejudice in the past? What do you think are basic rights all Americans should have?

During the movie, students note on a chart characters' names, acts of courage or kindness, and acts of violence or unfairness.

After Selma, Lord, Selma, several students say the film was sad, but good.

"I learned more about segregation," adds Emma.


Education World Goes Back to School

Education World news editor Ellen R. Delisio is spending several days a month this school year with the Royal 7's, a seventh grade team at Bennet Middle School, a grade 6 to 8 school in Manchester, Connecticut. She is observing and participating in students' learning, and talking with staff about their strategies and perspectives on improving student performance. She is a graduate of W. Tresper Clarke Junior-Senior High School in Westbury, N.Y.


(Editor's Note: All students' names have been changed) 

Article by Ellen R. Delisio
Education World®
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