January 15, 2010
Content and Character
My sister was teaching kindergarten in New Hampshire in 1999, when that state first recognized Martin Luther King Day as a holiday. On the Friday before the long weekend, she presented a lesson about Dr. King and other leaders of the civil rights movement. The following Tuesday morning, a mother approached her at the beginning of the school day. “I understand you taught a lesson about Martin Luther King,” she said. “I thought you’d like to know what came home.” The mother then shared her daughter’s description of the lesson my sister had taught: “Mommy! We learned about Martha Luten King. She was a leader who wanted everyone to ride the bus.”
This story shows how a well-intentioned, but overly complicated lesson can be misinterpreted, and raises an interesting educational question about how to teach challenging material to very young children. Often, the challenge revolves around identifying a core theme or concept, and using that topic to build children’s understanding in a gradual way from year to year. During the past two weeks, our primary grades teachers have demonstrated great skill in doing just that.
All of our classes have participated in lessons and activities related to Dr. King’s life and teachings. In the primary grades, teachers have worked with special care to match their lessons with the children’s developmental level and prior knowledge. They have been attentive to possible misconceptions as they teach basic information about Dr. King and his ideas, and have developed creative approaches to help the children appreciate his legacy.
In Pre-K, children wanted to know what Dr. King looked like. The teachers immediately found a photograph to share. One child wanted to know, if he was a king, who was the queen? The teachers explained that King is a name, like Andrick or Zamore. Then they emphasized the message that people can be different from one another but still be friends. The children learned to conduct surveys to find out who shared, or did not share, their interests. In Kindergarten, the class learned a song about building a better world that used American Sign Language, prompting one child to ask if Dr. King wanted to teach everyone to sign. “No,” the teachers explained, “but he did want to make sure that all people could understand each other’s words.”
The first graders have been reading biographies about Martin Luther King for two weeks. They were stunned to learn that a good man could be sent to jail--16 times! Their beautiful mural depicts significant scenes from Dr. King’s life, drawn by children who can envision the world he dreamed.