Today was a great day at school, filled with honoring Dr.Martin Luther King, Jr. and reflecting with my students on injustice and nonviolence. The day began with an all-school assembly about Dr.Martin Luther King, Jr.; as many times as I've heard his speeches, hearing them in a room full of middle school students and teachers felt different. The students were completely quiet and focused on the large screen in front (except for one or two - it IS middle school after all!). I got chills listening.
After assemblies like this, though, I worry that my students are getting a shallow picture of who Dr.King was. It's always a challenge, too, because the population I teach often does not have the background knowledge about race issues in the U.S. Because of this, last week I started a unit on MLK, nonviolence, and injustice, and in class today we connected what the students have studied so far to the presentation about MLK. There were some interesting, funny, and eye-opening (for me) moments, as there usually are with my ELL students.
In order to better explain segregation to the class, I told them that it was likely none of us would have been able to be in class together in the 1930's south. They didn't believe me. In my class, there is a Japanese student, a Cape Verdean student, a Colombian student, a Syrian-Austrian student, and a Puerto Rican student. They know enough about the Jim Crow south to know that it was mostly between Black and White people so the first thing they wanted to do was figure out who was darkest/lightest in the class. I told them that some people who looked whiter may have tried to blend in (or "pass") but that for many people anything other than White people were discriminated against.
We talked about what the "Dr." in front of Martin Luther King's name meant. One student said he got that title because he helped people. Another said it was because he was a minister - and it wasn't until a little later that I realized he was translating it literally to the Spanish and thought he worked in a "ministerio", or a department as in "Department of State". When I explained to the class what a PhD is, they were all surprised by the meaning of "Doctor".
As we talked about the details of MLK's life (they did some reading about him last week), one student mentioned that MLK had been assassinated. We discussed what that meant, because not all of them knew. Then one student asked why no one sought revenge for his assassination. Perfect moment to go back to the idea of nonviolence! I asked him what he thought MLK would have thought about someone using violence to get vengeance for his death; while he saw my point about it going against the principles of nonviolence, I wasn't able to convince him that it would've been wrong.
At the end of the class, preparing them for the homework (a writing assignment: "What is your dream about injustice?"), we brainstormed possibilities for an injustice to focus on. One student mentioned "wealth inequality", and we talked about the 99% and the 1%. Another student said "President Obama!" as an example of someone in the 1%, but I explained to him that presidents actually didn't make millions.
Every day I learn from my students - how to be a better teacher, how to explain things so they will really get them, how to change my teaching to adapt to each group I have, and how I can never assume anything about what they know or don't know.
Unexpectedly, I got an award (my first ever!) over the weekend: the Norma Jean Anderson Civil Rights and Academic Achievement award, from groups in my town that organize a yearly MLK breakfast. I felt honored that on the weekend we honor him, I was getting an award for keeping his words and actions true in my teaching and my community. I shared it on Facebook because I know my mother is beaming with pride right now and I wanted her to see it publicly. Here it is again with the description below. Thank you Dr.King, for your legacy, your actions,your words, your heart and soul, and your life. And thanks Mami and Papi, for instilling in me a strong sense of social justice and supporting me in evreything I do. I love you!