Tag Archives: civil rights

Civil Rights

“We learned about a man who got killed today,” a kindergarten boy solemnly informed me Friday afternoon.  We were waiting in the cafeteria to board buses at dismissal time.  The day before, he had been all excited about his train book he had checked out from the library.  But now things had gotten serious.

I wasn’t sure how to respond.

“Martin Luther King,” the little girl next to him nodded.

“Oh,” I said, somewhat relieved.  I don’t know why that made it better – that it was a man who was killed years ago instead of hours ago.  Time shouldn’t make it less disturbing, should it?

“No one liked what he said, his speeches,” the boy went on, “so the police killed him.”

“Wait a second!” I said, as gently as I could, “The police did not kill him.  A bad man did.  And lots of people did like his speeches.”

“Okay,” the boy said.  He didn’t seem very concerned with the details.  But he patted me on the arm because he could see that I did care.

By then it was time to board the bus, so the conversation was over.

The day before, I had been talking about courage with my 5th graders.  They had to rank 5 pictures from lowest to highest on how much courage they felt was being demonstrated in each image.  There was disagreement about the ranking of a picture that showed a Selma protest march.  Before ranking, the students had set some criteria for courage, one of which was that the person chose to perform that action not knowing if the outcome would be harmful to him or her.

“I ranked it high because they were marching for their civil rights,” one student said.

“But they didn’t have a choice!” one student exclaimed.

“What do you mean?” I asked.

“They weren’t getting treated right, so they had to march.  It wasn’t their choice, so it’s not courage!”

I tried to wrap my mind around this interesting logic and a few of us did our best to explain the situation – which the student admitted he didn’t know very much about.

“Well, and plus, they didn’t have to worry about being harmed because we have the right to protest, don’t we?”  he asked.

Wow, I thought.  This had obviously not been covered in his history class.

Ironically, our entire conversation had been brought about because we just finished reading The Giver, a book about a dystopian society where only one person holds all of the memories of the past – the good and the bad.  We had talked about the importance of keeping even horrible memories because we learn from them.  Yet here we were struggling to understand the importance of historical moments that are already starting to fade as newer generations tell the story with less and less detail.

I am worried.  Every time I read The Giver with a class, I try to get across the message that, even though it’s fictional, it is not entirely unrealistic.  People are willing to give up many freedoms to ensure safety – especially if they have no experience in having their rights taken away.  I don’t want to be an alarmist, and I don’t want to send my students to bed with nightmares about atrocities from the past (or even the present).  But I worry that we assume that rights that have been won can never be lost, and underestimate the incredible courage and strength it takes to capture and retain our tenuous freedom.

I’m sorry that I was relieved when I found out my student was talking about the murder of Martin Luther King, Jr.  We should all be just as angry and horrified today as those who mourned when it happened.  We need to feel the pain of his death so acutely that we will not allow those circumstances to ever develop again.  I feel, especially in our country this week, that we are at an important crossroad and we desperately need the wisdom of the people who understand what it really means to live in, “The Land of the Free.”

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Civil Rights for All

Martin Luther King Jr. Day is coming up in the States next week. Sadly, so much has been in the news lately about civil rights violations all over the world that it’s difficult to comprehend that anything has improved since King’s legacy survives.  As a teacher, I want to be sure that my students learn empathy and respect for others.  But it’s hard to find lessons that  hit the right chord with every grade level I teach.

You can find a good variety of activities for K-12 on the Read, Write, Think site under its Martin Luther King Day resources.

For integration with current events, middle and high school teachers should definitely check out the multitude of lesson plans for civil rights on the New York Times’ Learning Network.

Do you teach Kindergarten?  You can teach a lesson about civil rights, too!  Check out this adorable idea from Joelle Trayers, where she assigned her students to imagine what rights snow people would demand!

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iCivics Drafting Board

It’s been awhile since I’ve visited the iCivics site.  You can see my last post about it here (2012!).  The site, founded by Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, offers interactives, games, and lesson plans for learning about civics.  And it’s all free!

There is a lot of curriculum available on the site, and teachers can log in and add students to a class, giving them assignments that the teachers can then monitor.  One of the tools that looks really great for 5th graders and up is the Drafting Board tool.  This is a robust, thought-provoking interactive that leads students through steps that result in crafting a persuasive essay.  I’ve embedded the iCivics  introductory video to Drafting Board below.  This PDF thoroughly explains how to use the tool.

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There are several things that appeal to me about Drafting Board.  It scaffolds the process of writing a persuasive essay based on evidence very well.  The teacher has the capability of differentiating the assignment by choosing different “challenge levels” for students. Though there is a lot of reading involved, all of the passages have accompanying audio for students who need that support.  These features make this a great UDL resource.

One of the lessons is about whether or not 16-year-olds should be given the right to vote – a topic that is frequently brought up by my students. (Actually, they think “all kids” should have the right to vote.)  Another one that would tie in very well with my 5th grade unit on The Giver is the question of whether or not students should be required to do volunteer work in order to graduate.

Even if you don’t have access to 1-to-1 devices for your students, Drafting Board would be a valuable whole-class lesson, or even a center for groups of students, inviting an educated discourse about controversial topics.