Teaching about Martin Luther King, Jr.
A Scenario

Two acquaintances from college, both now teaching in an urban school district, chance to meet.

Jess(ica): I'm so glad to have bumped into you Sam; it's kind of amazing that we both go hired in the same district, but we never see each other.

Sam(antha): I know; these first couple of years of teaching are like being swallowed up.

J: I was actually think about you a couple of days ago.

S: How come?

J: Well, with the King holiday coming up, I was thinking about putting together some kind of a unit, you know, to give the kids some information on King and the Civil Rights Movement. I couldn't help but think about how fired up you used to get about that stuff, when we would discuss things back in our classes together. I thought you might have some good suggestions.

S: Sure, I could suggest all kinds of great stuff; but I'm not sure that's the way to go about it, I mean, doing a unit.

J: Why not?

S: I just think that the whole idea of a unit kind of distorts the message we nee o communicate; it makes King and the Civil Rights Movement into something for the display case.

J: But for out kids it is a long time ago. There must be things to read and do that would make the unit come alive.

S: Sure, as something in the past. That's just it. As teachers we're got to keep the movement going today, every day; nothing's finished. Teachers need to keep the struggle...

J: Don't talk to me about struggling; I feel like I'm about ready to go under every other day. Don't we have enough to do just concentrating on the basic things, the kids' skills and helping them get along decently? If we can add something about King and earlier times, all the better.

S: What you're saying would be fine if King's work had ushered in a just society; then we could focus on just bringing students up into it and keeping things going. But you know that didn't happen. The gap between rich and poor in this society is widening, millions of children are growing up in poverty, racial tensions are...

J: But teachers can't fix those things; at most we can give students the skills and background knowledge they will need to address them later on in their lives.

S: But even in schools themselves, look around. There are things teachers can do about it if we work together. The routine injustices, the discrimination suffered by kids who don't look or speak the "right way, the tracking, the sorting out of winners and losers from day one, the gross inequalities between schools in rich and poor neighborhoods...

J: Of course I see that; but that doesn't change what I need to do as a teacher, getting the kids I'm responsible for ready to move on and compete.

S: My point is, we need to take up King's themes today, every day. As teachers we should acknowledge with students--especially poor and minority students-- the injustices they face, the institutional racism and class bias, and work with them to analyze the forms injustice takes and ways to overcome it; teachers in rich districts should do the same, concentrating on the way privileges and unfair advantages are passed on. A unit's not going to do these things.

J: I'm just afraid that, when you open up all of that, too many kids won't get the things they need just to move on in school, to pass the tests that they will be judged by; I don't know if I want to risk that...

S: Are you wiling to risk just being someone whose work just keeps an unfair system humming along? What about the kids you'll never reach or help change because they see you committed to that role?

J: I'm committed to helping every one of my students do their best.

S: That may not be enough. But anyway, you wanted some suggestions..

J: At this point I really don't know how to approach all this.

Written by Dr. Paul Farber