Teaching Civil Rights in Your Classroom

On January 21, 2019, the United States will observe the federal holiday of Martin Luther King Jr. Day. King, whose birthdate is January 15, was one of the most predominant leaders of the Civil Rights Movement during the ‘50s and ‘60s. Admired for his civil disobedience and nonviolent tactics, King fought for equal rights for people of color as well as for all his countrymen. The third Monday each January serves as a reminder to celebrate not only King’s legacy but all that was accomplished by the Civil Rights Movement and all that remains to be done.

Teaching students about Martin Luther King Jr. and the inequalities existing during his era is a vital part of an American’s education, but it can be a difficult subject for one’s class. Teachers may think that the subject is incomprehensible for young children or too sensitive of a topic for older students. If you have had reservations about teaching the Civil Rights Movement, you are not alone. Establishing a few ground rules and procedures will help you carry out successful lessons. Doing so will help facilitate teaching to your students’ grade level.

Understand that sensitive issues will be encountered during your exploration of the topic. Before any lessons begin, inform parents and students about what to expect from your lesson, including descriptions of the activities in which students will participate. You should already have established a safe environment that is respectful of all students and their opinions, but now is a good time to review students’ ground rules. Know that some of the discussion topics will affect students differently. In your classroom may be students with relatives who were victims of race-based violence or who confronted discrimination firsthand. Students may have been victimized themselves. Parts of your lesson may serve as triggers to students, unleashing an array of difficult emotions. Have a plan in place to address these issues before you begin the lesson. You can prepare for this by first having students journal or free write about discrimination and inequalities that they have experienced or witnessed. Knowing what students already know will help you foresee challenges and help you decide how to shape your instruction.


Lesson Ideas for Grades 1 – 2

Introduce children to Martin Luther King, Jr. by watching a short age-appropriate biography which includes excerpts of his famous “I Have a Dream” speech. Following the video, answer questions that students have about what they saw. Then discuss other ways in which segregation affected people of color. You may show pictures of public facilities that posted “White Only” signs or labeled facilities and amenities by race. Ask students if they can identify examples of how King’s dream has been realized.

Add a hands-on activity that will allow students to identify injustices that they have noticed in their environment. Students can create a picture book showing what their dreams are for Americans’ freedoms. Have students include ideas about how people should treat one another so the world can become a better place. You may also want to practice using a Venn diagram. Students can identify the similarities and differences between they themselves and Martin Luther King, Jr.


Lesson Ideas for Grades 3 – 5

As a class, listen and read excerpts from the speech “I Have a Dream.” During this, students can record three to five “big” words used by King. Have students share their words with the class, and then ask them to explain what they think the words mean and what it is that makes each one “big.” Next, read Doreen Rappaport’s book Martin’s Big Words: The Life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Students will see that many words in their vocabulary are big words that carry a great deal of meaning like “freedom” and “love.” Have students revisit King’s speech and identify words they now consider big.


Lesson Ideas for Grades 6 – 8

Students can work in small groups to create a class project called A Child’s Guide to Leaders of the Civil Rights Movement. Have students brainstorm a list of the people who should be covered in the book. You will want to have each group cover two people. (If students are unable to name enough notable figures, then have them conduct preliminary research to find other subjects.) Using print and on-line sources, have students collect biographical information about their subjects. When they are ready to write about each figure, they must remember to write for elementary-aged students, writing simplistically and explaining unfamiliar terms and situations. Don’t forget to have your students include printed or original drawings of the people they cover. Once each group has completed the entries, compile all of them into a book. Have groups create all that the project needs to make it like a real book: cover, title page, table of contents, etc. When your work is done, display the class project in the elementary school’s media center or at your local library.


Lesson Ideas for Grades 9 – 10

Begin with having each student create a K-W-L chart on the topic of civil rights during the ‘50s and ‘60s. First, students should list what they already know in the K column of the chart. You may choose to review these responses prior to completing any more of the chart. This way, you can clear up any misinformation that students have. Next, in the W column for what they want to know, each student should record at least three questions that he or she has about this topic. To discover the answers to their questions, have students interact with a virtual timeline or similar resource. Students are to then record their answers as well as other facts they find interesting in the L column to create a list of what they have learned.


Lesson Ideas for Grades 11 – 12

Start students with a journal writing activity focusing on the topic of discrimination and inequality. What experiences have they had with this directly? Do they know people who have been treated unfairly because of their race, sex, or religion? Tell students that they are going to discuss discrimination and inequality in their community. To prepare for this, assign students to read texts such as “Black Lives Matter: Black History in the Making” or speeches like Hillary Rodham Clinton’s “Remarks in Recognition of International Human Rights Day.” Students will be expected to cite the assigned readings as support for their remarks made during the class discussion. When your class has prepared for the discussion, you may want to change the seating arrangement so that the desks form a circle, giving everyone an equal place in the classroom. Begin by asking students what connections they can make between the text and their life experiences. Following the discussion, have students make a second journal entry explaining what they took away from the discussion. Extend this activity by having the class create a display for the school that embraces diversity.