When learning about Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., it's easy for children to see him as a giant—a hero who changed the course of history for millions, a towering figure carved in granite standing watch over the nation's capital.
It can be harder to also see him as a regular human being—one whose actions children can emulate in their daily lives.
To that end, this year's celebration honoring Dr. King was re-imagined to make it more meaningful for each age group—and to allow students to consider Dr. King more completely. Rather than an all-school assembly in the Hosley Gym, there were three separate assemblies in the Twichell Room or gym for Grades K–2, Grades 3–5 and Grades 6–9.
Those assemblies were preceded by classroom activities tailored to each grade level that allowed students to learn about and reflect on Dr. King—not just as a civil rights leader, but as a husband, father and minister—and to develop their own sense of social justice and leadership.
In the lower grades, students engaged in visual literacy projects, using lesser known photos of Dr. King as inspiration for works or art, poems and conversations about Dr. King's character traits.
"The objective is to look at the multifaceted nature of Dr. King's identity," explains Head of Lower School Beth Mello. "For instance, students saw a wedding photo where Dr. King is just beaming. These are images you don't normally see of Dr. King because he is usually portrayed as the hero. By showing children he was a human being, he becomes accessible to them."
The end goal, says Beth, is to show children that "we can all be heroes in our daily lives and aspire to be someone who brings about important change."
Kindergartners read three books about Dr. King and discussed the many roles he had in life. They looked at the photos of Dr. King and then, based on a student's idea, used the photos to create original expressive artwork that captured the essence of Dr. King. "We made a connection to our body mapping project, where we talk about how you can express yourself in your artwork," says Kindergarten teacher Alexandra Wittner. "The project was student driven and we're very proud of that."
In Toby Welch's class, fourth graders looked at three photos of Dr. King and chose one as the subject of a project focused on acts of resistance. "You choose the photo, then make up a story about what is happening in the photo with regards to resistance," Toby instructed. "What happened before this picture was taken? What happened next? You could take a graphic novel approach. You create an aerial view of a city street, a mass of people waiting to gather, and then perhaps they start marching."
The idea, Toby said, was to use context and creativity to capture the historical essence of resistance inherent in the photographs.
Fourth grader Penelope chose a photo from a 1966 voter registration march in Mississippi that depicts Dr. King and Stokely Carmichael at the head of a group. Peeking out from behind them is a bearded white man, and Penelope wondered who he was. "I think he wanted to help because the black people marching want the same freedoms that he has," she says.
The theme for a Middle School assembly in the Hosley Gym was "A Blueprint for a Beloved Community," based on a 1967 speech by Dr. King to junior high school students in Philadelphia in which he asked students, "What is your life's blueprint?" Eighth graders emceeing the assembly read excerpts from this address, in which Dr. King said, "However young you are, you have a responsibility to seek to make your nation a better nation in which to live. You have a responsibility to make life better for everyone. You must be involved in the struggle for freedom and justice."
Along with reading poems by Maya Angelou and Langston Hughes—as well as a portion of Dr. King's "I Have a Dream" speech—eighth graders performed original songs they composed in Deadra Hart's class as part of a unit on protest songs. After studying a dozen influential American protest musicians, and the composition techniques that made their music so effective, students composed their own pieces about modern social justice issues that are important to them.
One group—Lilly, Lila, Sophia and Dani—sang an original song called "I Never Got to Say Goodbye" about gun violence. "During the notation process of the song, we wrote it to a specific chord sequence so that we could pair it with the tune of 'Rise Up' by Andra Day," said one of the composers. "We hope our performance inspires you to bring change."