My students can recite anti-racist, all-are-equal, don’t-judge-a-book-by-its-cover sentiments with their eyes closed and one hand tied behind their back. After all, they’ve grown up in what many say is a post-racial America. But if our efforts to honor Martin Luther King, Jr. start and end with discussions on racial equality and his dream that his “four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character,” we fall far short of King’s more ambitious dream of social and economic justice.
Click through the online news or search #RaceMatters and one will see that King’s vision is no less relevant today than it was over a half century ago when families crowded around a black and white television to witness the unraveling of a country’s institutionalized racism. Students can easily find examples of King’s dream not yet realized, but how do we link those issues to our curriculum? How do we make King’s vision relevant to the work our students do in our classroom?
As an English teacher, literature is my go-to for helping students make powerful connections between MLK’s vision, today’s front page news and our curriculum:
When my 8th graders read John Steinbeck’s The Pearl, they are outraged when the doctor refuses to treat the sick baby of a poor Indian family. They recognize racism at its worst and are quick to make the connection to today’s struggle for quality and affordable health care. But is it enough to encourage my students to see and condemn the racism? A much more difficult conversation surfaces when I ask my students, “Should the doctor treat the baby for free?” Initially, my generous and naive students say, “Yes, of course he should! It’s a tiny baby with a scorpion sting, of course the doctor should treat him!” And this is when the opportunity arises for them to tackle a much bigger and more complex issue: how should healthcare be provided? It’s easy to say “racism is wrong;” it’s a much more challenging task to address how to bring social and economic equality to all citizens.
In the middle of the Ferguson riots, a high school English teacher engaged his students in a debate on the repeated efforts to ban The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. He asked them to consider: Why should today’s students read Huck Finn? Would Huck protest in Ferguson? Would he say that #BlackLivesMatter based on his adventures with Jim? Today’s students may be ambivalent about the banning of literature written in the 1880s, but when they see its themes reflected in the news streaming through their social media feeds, they can be engaged in not just today’s issues, but also classic texts.
How do you help your students move past the simplistic “don’t be racist” message when discussing the legacy of King and the Civil Rights Movement?
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