Since I’ve had children, I’ve been disheartened to see what they bring home from school every Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. First it was crafts — rainbows, kids with complexions as varied as crayons and construction paper allows. Then came the dated, black and white worksheets about King’s “I Have A Dream Speech,” or reading comprehension passages about Selma, Birmingham and Montgomery.
It was all too neatly packaged, unwrapped once a year for the federally mandated holiday and then filed away. The message to students was: “Move along. Nothing more to see here. That stuff is over, and by the way it was a southern thing. It didn’t happen here.”
Exhibit A is from this year — 2021. My son is in sixth grade at a well-regarded New York public school. Below is an image of a question from the MLK reading passage he was assigned for homework.
Even my son — no fan of reading comprehension homework — knew it was a joke. Compared to other reading assignments, this one was the shortest, and the questions were oversimplified to point of insult. He didn’t understand why such an important person in history wasn’t being treated like one. He looked at the ellipsis in the passage title and said, “See, they didn’t even care enough to finish the title.”
Don’t get me wrong — there are amazing resources out there to teach children about Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Civil Rights Movement. The challenge is getting some teachers to use them. For many, each year is another missed opportunity to teach children lessons more relevant today than ever. These lessons are not just critical to our success as a society, but critical to the ability of students to live and succeed in a diverse, multicultural world.
One way to teach students real, lasting lessons on MLK Day is to connect this history to their corner of the world. As we all remember, when you’re a kid your corner of the world is EVERYTHING. Too often MLK Day is approached with hyperfocus on the South and a few iconic events. It is too easy for students to forget a once-a-year lesson on a southern preacher who fought for justice many miles away. It doesn’t feel like their history. They don’t own it. If they don’t own it, chances are slim they’ll care enough to do anything about it.
Two years ago I told a fellow mother, “I am not going to let another MLK Day go by without writing something to make this real for my kids.” It started with a Google search. I typed “MLK on Long Island,” and I was off. A few months later, at the Long Island Museum’s “Long Road to Freedom: Surviving Slavery on Long Island,” I realized this was a much bigger project. I was humbled by how little I knew about Long Island history.
How had I grown up on Long Island, majored in history at an Ivy League college, graduated from law school and never known about slavery on Long Island? That doesn’t just happen; it was intentional. This history was being kept from me.
The good news is now the information is out there. Even in a pandemic, it was possible for me to research the Civil Rights Movement on Long Island thanks to online sources, books and interviews I will treasure forever. My book came to life, and now teachers, librarians and parents have another resource to help make MLK Day real for young people.
Often the most powerful stories, the ones children connect to and remember, happen in places they know, the streets they walk every day. These stories provide the context children need as their world broadens with age. MLK Day is the perfect opportunity to show children that the struggles of the Civil Rights Movement were not limited to some far off place, but happened where they live, and to people just like them who fought to make their corner of the world a better place for everyone.
Allison Singh’s picture book “MLK & LI: Martin Luther King, Jr. and Long Island” is available now on Amazon.