Teaching Social Justice Lessons for MLK Day

Teaching Social Justice Lessons for MLK Day

by Dr. Tehia Starker-Glass, Associate Professor of Elementary Education and Educational Psychology in the department of Reading and Elementary Education at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte.

Teaching social justice

As caregivers and teachers,  how can we move beyond the popular, but over-simplified ‘dream’ lesson, and truly honor all that Dr. King and the nation did to move civil rights forward?  

Furthermore, if we are a social justice oriented family, but our child’s teacher is not, what can we do? 

If you have these or similar questions, I am happy to share a few insights and suggestions.

Dr. Tehia Starker-Glass and family

For parents who are willing to help teachers, here is a letter/email you can revise to meet your needs.

Dear Teacher,

As Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. day is approaching, I wanted to know if you are planning to celebrate the day?  I also wanted to know how you will celebrate his legacy?  As you may know, in my household we are striving towards social justice, and spend time teaching our child/ren historically accurate and racially appropriate information.  I’m happy to help you if you would like resources and children’s books that are more accurate.  I’ve included local events going on that may enrich ourselves and our community.  I look forward to collaborating with you now and in the near future for Black History Month (February), and Women’s History Month (March).   

Yours truly,


Include local events going on in your city. 

Martim luther king mlk

Here are some suggestions for teaching MLK and the Civil Rights Movement through the social justice lens. 

  • Compare what you may know to what else MLK did (K-5)
  • Find community heroes who also advocate for those who are oppressed/marginalized.  Have a hero’s day and invite them to school (can go into Black History Month)
  • Examine other parts of his “I Have a Dream” speech where he discusses injustices that are happening to others (K-5 literacy)
  • Read his other speeches, sermons, or books (literacy)
  • Compare and contrast him to Malcolm X, another Civil Rights Leader (3-5)
  • Map out all of the places in the country he visited to see where he went to advocate against oppression (K-5 geography)
  • Examine the pictures of Dr. MLK and examine the people in the crowd who opposed him (3-5 critical media)
  • Examine how the media portrays Dr. MLK as safe and passive and compare that to his speeches (3-5 literacy, critical media)
  • Investigate where he went to college (Morehouse College), and examine why/how he was a college student at that age of 16 (K-5, college preparation)
  • Research we as a country came to celebrate Dr. MLK on January 15?  What was the process?  Who was for it and who was against it?  When did the U.S. begin to honor Dr. MLK?  (3-5 Government and civics)
  • Examine the Coretta Scott King Awards for children’s books.  What are the criteria?  Why do we have the award?  Who has won the award? (K – 5) 
  • Inquire about the legacy of Dr. King in 2018?  What are some of the injustices that are occurring today, and who are the people who are leading to stop those injustices?  Examine locally.  (K-5)
  • Investigate several of Dr. Kings quotes (and when he said them) and analyze how they are applicable to 2018.  (K-5)

Here are helpful resources.Happy birthday martin luther king

  • The King Center – Historically accurate information that includes MLK family members who are still alive
  • – Well known website includes lesson ideas and links to use for Dr. MLK day.
  • National Park Service – “This educational curriculum was developed by The Alonzo Crim Center for Excellence in Urban Education at Georgia State University.  The curriculum focuses on building on students’ current civil rights knowledge and helping them to compare present-day realities to past struggles for justice in America and throughout the world.”
  • Zinn Project – There is so much more to Dr. MLK, Jr. than “I have a dream.” Students can explicitly identify the ways in which King is portrayed in the mass media, and which of his ideas are communicated to the public.

Here are a few related lesson plans.martin luther king book

  • I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” delivered April 3,1968, the day before he was assassinated. Here are 3 teaching insights that embolden students. 
  • “Letter from Birmingham Jail” Summarize the letter and identify themes or talking points. Then have students write their own letter about what came from your discussion.  

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