Reflection: Teaching Martin Luther King, Jr. Day to a 3rd Grade Classroom

By Nina Sethi, Teacher and Guest Blogger

Every year, when we have a long weekend for Martin Luther King, Jr. day, we wonder how to address the holiday. Issues of inequality cannot simply be explained and dismissed in one day, and simplistic or one-dimensional descriptions of Dr. King don’t do him justice. We also try to incorporate social justice education into our classroom everyday, as oppression, prejudice, and discrimination are always relevant to teaching and learning about the world.

We often find that our students think that racism and segregation were a problem, and Dr. King “fixed” that problem and everyone is equal now. They make statements about how everyone is equal now and Dr. King caused that through nonviolence and an inspiring speech. So we start by asking students what they know about Dr. King. Younger students in particular focus on the fact that he was shot (and yet still fixate on nonviolence when recalling the Civil Rights movement). This year, we heard a lot about his “I Have a Dream” speech and the fact that it took place here in Washington, DC, as well as the usual answers about how he spoke and acted against racism and wanted equality for all people.

We wanted to take a closer look at his “I Have a Dream Speech” as it is something students seem to have been hearing about for years, so it is very familiar to them. It’s also helpful context that it occured in Washington, DC. Third graders (like all of us) benefit from background information and contextual knowledge, especially when studying events that happened in the past. We also wanted to take a closer look at Dr. King’s speech as it is often referenced in the simplistic or one dimensional discussions and portrayals of Dr. King in our media and society.

So we gave each student a copy of his “I Have a Dream” speech. We used Newsela’s Primary Sources resource (which we recommend all Social Studies teachers use often!) so it was adapted to be at a 3rd grade reading level. We had students read the speech and indicate what they agreed with or had questions about. We also listened to and watched this excerpt from his speech so students could hear Dr. King’s voice instead of a different version or interpretation of it.

Finally, we talked to our students about how Dr. King’s dream is still relevant today on a variety of levels. In the past, students have told us that his dream was realized or “mostly accomplished,” but with our current political climate, more of our students are aware of the existence of racism, injustice, and inequality than ever. From that lens, they were able to engage in a discussion of injustice and lack of equal opportunities to help push their thinking about equality (or equity) and how it is so much more than white and black children “being friends.”

We ended by reminding our students that we are all complex humans, and one day is not nearly enough to learn about someone’s life and beliefs. We are moving into a study of biographies and will have more opportunities to learn about many inspiring humans and their multifaceted beliefs and causes.

How did you commemorate Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day in your classroom? Do you hear similar statements about racism being a past problem from your students (or other adults)? I’d love to hear about it.

This piece is a revised version of the original publication on the author’s blog, here.


Nina currently teaches 3rd grade in Washington DC, but has taught a variety of students of many ages in Chicago, New York, Berlin, New Delhi, and more. She is passionate about social justice and anti-bias education and is always looking for new ways to teach her students about the world. Nina blogs at teachpluralism.squarespace.com


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