Preparing our students for Martin Luther King, Jr. Day always presents an interesting challenge.  Our school—Early Childhood through 5th grade—holds class on that day as a way of teaching children that it is a day to honor working for social justice and doing acts of tzedakah (charity).  Books and research play a significant role in what students learn in the process.

This year, as the school librarian, I had the opportunity to work with all the students in preparation for that day.  All of the classes were working with the Jewish value of “b’tzelem Elohim,” or the idea that all people are created in the image of God.  If, as our teaching tells us, everyone is created in God’s image, we must necessarily see all people as having a spark of holiness that makes them both like God and like us.  On the Friday before MLK Day, we read aloud Woodson’s “The Other Side,” which nicely articulates how to find ways to make friendship possible, even when society works against you.

For the Early Childhood students (33 months to 5 years old), we focused on the idea of how to be a good friend.  We read a delightful book, Delton’s “Two Good Friends,” that explores how two very different creatures—neat Rabbit and chef Bear—can still be good friends even if they are very different from each other.

The Kindergarten and First Grade class could take a more sophisticated approach to the topic.  In their classroom, they had been learning about Dr. King as well as Rosa Parks, so they had already grasped some of the major issues in the Civil Rights era.  In Library, I worked with them to explore the meanings of the words “civil” and “rights”; by thinking about other ways we use these words, they could begin to puzzle out how it works as a concept.  Together we read Johnson’s “A Sweet Smell of Roses” to learn how the March on Washington might have felt to children their age.

Our Third and Fourth Graders had even more knowledge to work with.  They had been learning about various people who in their youth had worked to bring about more civil rights.  They had read and taken notes on the stories of these people and had written short summaries of their lives as if they were the people telling their own stories.  They then turned these into a performance piece.  In the near future, they are going to hold a “conversation” in which they converse as if they were the people they researched.  Additionally, they are working on reading a biography of George Washington Carver.

I read this class two stories.  The first, Hopkinson’s “A Band of Angels,” tells the story of students from Fisk University who toured in the years immediately after the Civil War as the Jubilee singers to raise money to keep the school funded.  Students were surprised to learn that even in the north these singers faced discrimination and mistreatment.  They also began to think about why education was so important to recently freed slaves.  The second book, Lorbiecki’s “Sister Anne’s Hands,” recounts the experiences of a young girl in the early 1960s who has an African-American nun as her teacher.  My class audibly gasped when a child in the story makes a racist remark about the teacher.  They couldn’t imagine such a reaction and were very upset that someone would say such a thing.

On MLK Day itself, our school celebrated in a variety of ways.  Our two guest speakers told stories of their personal experiences.  One, a graduate of our school, talked of the discrimination he faced as a child and as an adult who is a Jew of color.  The other, a history professor who grew up in South Carolina, spoke of her sense of injustice as a white child of activist parents and how they worked to change the laws of the time.  Our older students participated for part of the day in a march in support of the Black Lives Matter movement. In addition, students prepared food to take to a women’s shelter. 

And their studies don’t end there—each child chose to commit to one task that they would tackle in making the world better, by walking in the ways of Dr. King and Rabbi Joshua Heschel.  These goals were not to be lofty “I want to make the world a better place” sort of goals—we wanted children to commit to something very specific that they could do as part of their daily lives.  Their goals include things like “if I see someone by themselves at recess I will ask them to play with me” to the preschooler offering of “if someone is sad I will give them a hug.” 

I encourage everyone who teaches to think about ways that we can teach this next generation how to take on the duty of social justice in such personal and meaningful ways.