How Do You Celebrate Martin Luther King Jr. Day?
Real teachers share their favorite ways to honor the life and legacy of the Civil Rights leader.
- Grades: PreK–K, 1–2, 3–5, 6–8, 9–12
We asked teachers from around the country how they honor the work and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. From reading favorite books to finding ways to spread Dr. King's message of peace and justice, here are teaching ideas for every classroom.
My first graders and I celebrated Dr. King's birthday by reading severals books about him, making a birthday time line card of his life, making another time line of his life working in cooperative groups and lastly, celebrating with a birthday cake complete with candles. We sang Happy Birthday and ate the cake with milk. We also sang a song each morning entitled "Sing about Martin, Sing about Love". –Sharon K. Gregg, Vienna, VA
My sixth graders are currently reading Mildred Taylor's novel, Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry. After a two-day discussion of Martin Luther King Jr. and his "I Have a Dream" speech, they are each composing and presenting a "Dream speech" to the class from the point of view of a character in the novel. –Rebecca Ayers, Ballston Lake, NY
This year the children in my classroom (2nd grade) each made a large poster that completed the sentence, "I have a dream that all people in the world..." They illustrated their posters and then we went on a "Peaceful March" around campus. –Julie Schrey, Fresno, CA
I teach four year olds. We read the book All the Colors of the Earth by Sheila Hamanaka, then we talked about differences in skin color. We looked at pictures of peoples from all around the world. This was actually a culmination of two weeks of activities about how we are all the same and yet all different. We then made a mural of handprints in all the colors that skin can come in. The children could choose two different colors to have their hands painted and then add them to the mural. –Julia Parzen, Putnam Valley, NY
After reading the play about Dr. King in the January edition of Storyworks magazine, my sixth graders will brainstorm some of the other problems we face in society today. The students will then prepare their own "I Have a Dream" speeches to read to the class. –Tara DeCamillo, Cape May, NJ
I use Martin Luther King Jr. Day as an opportunity to introduce the use of a time line to my students. We work on identifying at least five to eight events that occurred in his life. The events must be listed in chronological order. I take a 6-by-18 inch strip of paper and fold it into eight sections. The students write in the date and event, then illustrate a picture to go along with the event. The students must explain, by writing a paragraph, the impact of one event in Dr. King's life. This also affords us an opportunity to discuss Martin Luther King, Jr.'s dream. My third grade students really enjoy this activity. –Annette Grant, Savage, MN
I plan to attend one of the many special programs or marches planned in Bowing Green, KY, to honor Dr. King. –Tonya, Munfordville, KY
My third-grade class read a book on Martin Luther King Jr. and created a Dream Book. After reading the book, we then had a discussion on Goals and Dreams. Children then wrote what their goals for our country were and what their dreams are for their own future. Once their writing was edited, students transferred it onto cloud-shaped paper. They finished the book by creating a cover, hole-punching the left end of all the pages, and then binding them together with yarn strung through the holes. Then we watched the video Our Friend Martin. I highly recommend this video. –Taneesha Vannoy, DeKalb, IL
My first-grade students listen to the story Happy Birthday, Martin Luther King. Then we create time lines of Dr. King's life. My classroom is 100 percent African American, and I am not. My kids always are amazed that not so long ago they could not have done the same things as white children. It always sparks an interesting discussion on fairness and equality. –Tracy Carroll, Cleveland, OH
My first graders listen to a big storybook of Martin Luther King, Jr.'s life. We discuss the happy things and the sad things about his life. Each child then makes a "sloppy copy" of what dream he or she has for children in the future. The next day we go to the computer lab, where children use their word-processing skills to complete a template that is already on their disks: "I have a dream that one day..." After they are printed we put them up on our bulletin board. We do a Martin Luther King activity each day. Our culminating activity is a breakfast of scrambled eggs. I mix brown eggs and white eggs. We discuss how the outsides of the eggs are different-but the insides are the same! –Virginia, East Northport, NY
My fifth-grade students listen to and discuss Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech. Each student then writes about his or her dream for the nation, for people in the world, and for themselves. They then share their writing with the entire class. They really notice the differences between the 1960s and the 1990s. –Athena Fullerton, Wilmington, DE
We created a bulletin board with a picture of Dr. Martin Luther King and a brief description of his accomplishments, a list of good books to read and videos to watch. For a border we traced different-colored hands (red, yellow, black, and white) to represent diversity. –Paulette Justice, Washington Court House, OH
We read four books about Dr. King. We did an activity called Hate Hurts. It was a series of three writing prompts relating to the life of Dr. King and other African Americans who were treated unfairly. I gave the students three scenarios and they had to answer each and discuss what they would do and how would they feel. Each child got to pick one to read to the class. We colored pictures and did two puzzles about Dr. King. –Susan Otis, Sarasota, FL
I am going to observe the holiday by reading a book about the life of Martin Luther King Jr. My fourth grade class will then go over civil rights and how he fought for them. Next we will write a letter to Dr. King as if he were alive, telling him about the effect he has had on the world today. We will then listen to his "I Have a Dream" speech, and students will write about their reactions to the speech and what they can do to help keep his dream alive. –Meg, Bronx, NY
I read A Picture Book of Martin Luther King, Jr. to my first grade class. We discuss how wonderful it is that all children can come to our school, regardless of the color of their skin. To show how it must have felt for African-American children to be denied the right to go to all-white schools, I have all children with brown hair stand up. I tell them that just because they were born with brown hair they cannot come to our school. I do this again, using other physical characteristics, until every child has been excluded and experiences how unfair such a decision would be to them. I always get remarks such as, "Hey, that's not fair!" This is a wonderful activity to use to demonstrate what Martin Luther King Jr. stood for. We follow up by making a class book titled, "I Have a Dream..." –A. Campbell, Knox, TN
The week prior to the celebration, teachers at our school will work with students, using background materials that examine the topic "Martin Luther King Jr.'s Life and Beliefs." Various teachers will focus on one subject/activity with multiple classrooms and grade levels. Activities will include:
- Teaching the six principles of nonviolence of Dr. Martin Luther King to grades K-6 by the school counselor.
- The music teacher will teach a song about Martin Luther King Jr. to all K-6 students, work with selected students from K-6 to recite parts of his "I Have a Dream" speech, and share a biography of King as background material.
- The librarian will present and discuss a biographical video and his "I Have a Dream" speech.
- On the last day, our physical education teacher will have each K-6 student draw around one of his or her feet and write down one belief of Martin Luther King Jr. that she or he will try to follow in her or his life. Their work will be placed around the gymnasium, where the culminating activity will take place February 18 (no school on 17th).
On the 18th, students will gather in the gymnasium and share the following events:
- "Choosing Friends" poem to be recited by chosen first and second grade students.
- A very well-liked presenter will speak to the students on the subject "Take a Stand."
- A multi-age classroom activity (K-6), for which students will read a very short book on the life of Martin Luther King Jr. and then make a poster together about "dreams for themselves, their school, and their families." Partnering during this part of the activity will be kindergarteners with 5/6 students, and 3/4 with 1/2 students, and every available teacher, aide, administrator and superintendent will participate with a group of the students;
- The final celebration will include a recitation of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s famous speech by chosen students, singing of the practiced Martin Luther King song, Jr. by the student body, and a cookie being given to each child.
–Rhonda Thornburrow, St. George, KS
Students will learn about the civil rights movement. Using collage, drawing, etc., they will write and create a narrative and visual interpretation of the theme, "I Have a Dream." The students will give presentations about their work to fellow classmates, and a class discussion will follow. –Jehnell Linkins, Severn, MD
We create an acrostic poem, "PEACE," in a big and colorful design, using words that the students come up with, for example:
P - peace, people, peaceful, part of the community
E - equal, e quality, every, everyone, everybody, each
A - all are equal, always be kind
C - care for each other, caring, conflict resolution
E - every, everyone, everybody, each
The students design a page for each word and we create a class book, "THERE IS NO WAY TO PEACE; PEACE IS THE WAY." Copies of the book are made and given to other classes. –Marilyn Anderson, Federal Way, WA
Around the time of Martin Luther King Jr. Day, I usually do what I call "The Blue Eye/Brown Eye Lesson" with my third grade class. In the morning, I ask the children which of them have blue or green eyes. For the first part of the day, I favor these children. I allow them to get extra drinks from the fountain and get on line first, and give them some extra free time. For the second part of the day, I do the same with the children who have brown eyes. I want the children to experience prejudice. I don't go overboard with this exercise, but I do want the students to understand the unfairness and frustration of experiencing prejudice. At the end of the day, we all sit in a circle and discuss our feelings. It is very amazing to hear the reactions of the children. Some of the children who were favored felt very badly for the others. For homework, I have the children reflect on this experience. Before I begin this lesson, I send a letter home to the parents explaining what will be happening. I want them to have the opportunity to exclude their children from this lesson if they are uncomfortable with it. So far, no parent has done so. In fact, many parents communicate that they are very much in favor of this lesson. –Beth Ezrin, Dix Hills, NY
I teach a first grade bilingual class and we will recognize Dr. King's influence by making an "I Have a Dream" quilt. Each student will receive four paper squares: the peace sign for peace (pax); a heart for love (amor); a bell for freedom (libertad); and a equals sign for equality (igual). Each student will color, cut, and paste each of the symbols to a 4''x 6'' colored construction-paper square. The four squares will be punched with holes and connected together with yarn. Then everybody will "find a friend and connect (your) quilt squares." We will continue connecting the pieces until the entire class' squares are joined together.We will also read Dr. King's childhood stories about being denied the friendship of a neighbor when he was of school age, and how when he was not allowed to play with the neighbor or to share his lemonade, he returned back home with the refused lemonade. We will then decorate and leave a special chair in the classroom for Martin, and make lemonade in his honor. –Sally R. Zamora, New Braunfels, TX
I teach special education to second and third graders. In our language arts class, we spend the week of Jan. 10th reading books about Martin Luther King Jr. and discussing his life and what he stood for. We choose ways to solve conflicts the children might have, without using violence. We read the book Letters to Martin, a compilation of letters written by children to King. We then write our own letters to Dr. King, as if he were alive today. –Kate Kelly, Grahamsville, NY
I show my class of first graders the video Our Friend Martin. It is about the good things that Dr. King did through his life from a child's perspective. Then our class participates in various community projects. –J. Hansen, Milwaukee, WI
I will read the story of Martin Luther King Jr., to my first-grade class. We will discuss how God loves all people no matter what color their skin is. Everyone is special. We will make "I Have a Dream" posters. To make the poster, children trace their hand on a piece of peach paper and a piece of brown paper. Then hand shapes are cut out and glued onto blue paper. With fingers intertwined, it looks like they're holding hands. A dove is traced and cut from white paper and glued above the intertwined hands. The children write "I have a dream" at the bottom of the paper. If students are good at writing and time allows, they will also write their dream for the world on the paper. –Liz Sullo, Colchester, CT
I teach a second grade class and usually we talk about dreams during this time. We discuss Dr. King's dream and check out his "I Have a Dream" speech, which is available on the Internet. Afterward we read Langston Hughes' poem "A Dream Deferred." We compare the two kinds of dreams a person might have (such as a dream when you are asleep and a goal you have in life). The children will write and draw their own dreams afterward. –Nicole Wallace, Raleigh, NC
I will have my high school students (grades 9-12) research letters, interviews, and speeches given by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. They will then prepare a stage presentation that will include poetry, song, dance, speech excerpts, and skits to celebrate Dr. King's dream of "freedom". Classes will be invited to view the presentation in our school theater. –Antoinette Martin, Cambria Heights, NY
We are dedicating an entire week to Dr. King's memory. Our focus will be his life, his work, and his stated wishes and goals for all people. This will be achieved through plays, debates, research reports, poems, and other special events. The students have been discussing how they imagine Dr. King would feel about who and what they presently are, and will create a group piece around this called "Dr. King, Are You Proud of Me Now?" They will also discuss different ways that they can bring his ideas of nonviolence into the classroom, the lunchroom, and their daily lives. –Fran, New York, NY
My students are doing a Freedom Tea. Parents are invited to come in on the Friday before Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. The students present information about Dr. King's life. Tea and danish are served to the parents. The students also sing freedom songs that were sung in the 50's and 60's. –Katie May Taylor, Miami, FL
My first-grade class will study Martin Luther King Jr. for two weeks before his birthday. We will practice the song, "We Shall Overcome," learn relevant facts about his life and work, and put together mini-fact books. On Martin Luther King Jr. Day, we will present these all to our parents during a Freedom Celebration (with tea, punch and cookies). During the celebration, each first grader will be given a "Peace Prize" award. –Jodi Morgan, Denton, MT
One of the things my second graders do the week before the holiday is learn a sentence from the "I Have a Dream" speech in sign language. ("I have a dream that my four small children will one day live in a nation where they will be judged not by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.") They both say and sign the sentence. We talk about the meaning of the words as we learn them. The Microsoft Encarta Encyclopedia (on CD-ROM) has the same part of the speech with Dr. King's voice saying the words. We also listen to that. Parents have been very impressed with their child coming home and sharing those meaningful words. –Colleen Hoover, Hesperia, C