How do you introduce your students to the life and work of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.? With such an enormous legacy, it can be a daunting task to properly honor Dr. King, his contributions to the Civil Rights Movement, and his significance in American history and culture. So, we pulled together some Martin Luther King Jr. Day activities for the classroom.
1. Make a timeline.
To put the work of MLK Jr. into perspective for students, create a timeline of major moments in his life. Assign student teams specific moments in Dr. King’s life to research. Each team can then present each event to the class in chronological order, forming a human timeline along the way. Some key moments to include are:
- 1955: Montgomery Bus Boycott, resulting in the U.S. Supreme Court ruling that racial segregation in transportation was unconstitutional
- 1957: Dr. King elected president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference
- 1963: Nonviolent campaign aimed at Birmingham, Alabama, including the “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”
- 1963: The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom and “I Have a Dream” speech
- 1964: Nobel Peace Prize win at 35 years old, youngest person to ever receive the honor
- 1964: Congress passed the landmark Civil Rights Act
- 1965: Selma to Montgomery March for Voting Rights in Alabama
- 1965: Congress passed the Voting Rights Act
- 1967: Poor Peoples Campaign announced
- 1968: Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was tragically assassinated at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee.
2. Deliver speeches.
Listen to theand encourage a dialogue amongst students about Dr. King’s platform of nonviolence and peace. Consider how his path of nonviolence can still improve our world today. Then, ask students to think about their dreams for the future. How do they want to see the world improve? After time for reflection, have students write and present their own versions of the iconic speech.
3. Make dreams a reality collage.
If delivering “dream” speeches isn’t your class style, another entry point to teaching the “I Have a Dream” speech is with a sentence prompt. “I have a dream that” and “I can make my dream come true by” prompts are an easy way to provoke deeper thought. Turn the dreams into a reality (a real collage, at least) by having students trace their hands on different colored paper. Cut out the handprints, write their dreams down on the many-colored hands, and arrange into a beautiful collage of diverse dreams.
4. Hold a parade or a march.
Dr. King championed peaceful protests by organizing marches. Today, we often celebrate MLK Day by having a parade celebrating his life. You can have your own peace parade by having students make signs displaying quotes, hopes, and ideas for a nonviolent world. Get the grade or even the whole school together if you’re feeling really ambitious!
5. Volunteer in your school or community.
One of MLK Jr.’s most famous quotes is, “Life’s most persistent and urgent question is, ‘What are you doing for others?’” Ask this question of your class and together come up with ways to help others. Consider big and small ways your class can help out in the community, as a group and as individuals. Ideas for helping out in school could be cleaning up a communal space, partnering up with another grade for tutoring moments, or organizing a food drive.
More MLK Day Activities and Resources
Other resources and more information to help teach Dr. King in the classroom include:
- archive of MLK Jr. content
- MLK Jr. project
- "Three MLK Day Activities for Families" on Shaped
Want to further immerse your students in history? Learn more about HMH's newprogram for K-6 students.
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