Learning from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in Social Studies Class

Practicing Inquiry with Primary Sources

Inquiry is at the heart of the College, Career, and Civic Life (C3) Framework for Social Studies State Standards. The process of generating, asking, and answering thoughtful questions guides students through the life-long process of forming opinions, empathizing, and communicating. A strong foundation in social studies inquiry can provide students with the tools they need to positively collaborate with others into adulthood — and provide them with the inspiration to strive to make the world a better, more thoughtful place.

The C3 Framework suggests that social studies teachers foster inquiry skills through two overarching types of questions: compelling questions, which ask larger questions about a topic and require the construction of an argument, and supporting questions, which are simpler to answer, and serve as the foundation for compelling questions. According to the framework, compelling and supporting questions should be generated by both teachers and students. The process of engaging with compelling and supporting questions is cyclical: students need to balance gathering knowledge to pursue answers to questions with continuing to ask more questions based on the information they gather.

Asking and answering questions requires students to work with sources and evidence. The C3 Framework stresses the importance of students’ ability to do research, identify useful sources, and understand the perspective and context of those sources. Students should then be able to leverage the content of those sources to support the construction of their argument, or to develop further questions. Primary sources, in particular, add another layer of complexity, due to authorship, historical context, and other factors.

Resources Inspired by Dr. King

Martin Luther King, Jr. Day provides a unique opportunity to practice asking questions and finding answers to questions about history — and about people, past and present. To inspire your lesson planning, below are a few examples of exciting primary sources related to Dr. King’s legacy and the civil rights movement, each with examples of themes or discussion topics designed to guide and inspire the development of supporting and compelling questions.

  • Ask students to consider the medium of this source, both listening and reading the speech, and reflect on key moments where the speech might sound different than it reads.
  • Have students discuss who they think was Dr. King’s principal audience, at both an individual and institutional level.
  • Encourage students to reflect upon the tone of this speech, and the emotions inspired by Dr. King’s choices of language in the speech, for both historic and contemporary listeners. Ask students if this emotional reaction might be different for historic and contemporary listeners.
  • Encourage students to discuss the iconic nature of this speech and why this speech, in both content and context, is so closely tied to the civil rights movement and Dr. King’s legacy.
  • As they listen, ask students to list the phrases, words, or moments in the speech that resonate with them. Instruct students to group these words and phrases together to identify rhetorical devices employed and discuss why those devices or language choices might be effective.
  • Encourage students to discuss the nature of this clip, and the context of televised news. Suggest that students do additional research on who watched televised news in the early 1960s, and what those viewers might have expected to see on broadcasts.
  • List and discuss the various groups, institutions, and individuals Dr. King is attempting to engage with in his proposals for change. Ask students to consider why he considered these groups important to work with in the civil rights movement.
  • Ask students to list and summarize Dr. King’s demands, and then identify which demands were the most difficult to achieve. Students can then research which of these proposals were met during the civil rights era, and consider why those remaining demands were not accomplished.
  • Ask students to research the context of this memo, including who it was distributed to, how it was received, and the role it played in the Montgomery bus boycott.
  • Use this source as a starting point to discuss the planning and people required to conduct a protest, a demonstration, or a boycott. Also ask students to discuss the role of individuals such as Rosa Parks and Dr. King as symbols and catalysts for the larger movement.
  • Consider how public spaces reflected the reality of public segregation during the 1960s. Ask students to discuss how this emphasized an imbalance of power.
  • Ask students to spend extra time on this document, paying special attention to how a comic book might have been received in the civil rights era.
  • Ask students to reflect on the difference between this source and others they review in relation to Dr. King. Does this source differ when its intended audience, its accessibility, and its potential influence?
  • Have students evaluate the calls to action the comic urges its readers to take. Ask students to compare those with the calls to action in Dr. King’s I Have a Dream speech, or the other documents, you have reviewed about the bus boycott.

For more lesson plan ideas for Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, see: