Celebrating Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day

By Wendy M. Smith

For young children, it is helpful to have a concrete concept in mind when teaching about an important event or person in history. Begin your planning your lessons on Dr. King by thinking about what you want the children to remember. Is it that MLK was a black man who gave a speech in Washington DC, or do we want children to remember that Dr. King stood for the rights of people in a peaceful way?

You can introduce the concept of peace by having children pair off. In each pair one person makes a fist and tries to keep that fist closed. The other child is instructed to try to get the fist opened. The key, that only a very few children will get on their own, is that they can ask their friend to open their fist. No physical pressure is needed and if they ask, most likely, the other child will open his/her fist.

Once you have introduced peaceful methods in this concrete way, you can begin to tell or read stories to children about MLK.

The Peace Study Center has a number of books that help to tell this story. Because MLK was known for oratory and his use of language, Martin’s Big Words by Doreen Rappaport is a good place to start. You can share this book or check out the DVD. Talk to children about the words that Dr. King uses and how he chooses his words. This can lead to a number of activities in writing and public speaking. Listen to Dr. King use his words, and encourage children to practice speaking with full, rounded voices.

You could also use part of King’s most famous speeches for choral reading activities throughout the week, leading to lessons in vocabulary, and more public speaking.

For young children, reading My Brother Martin by Christine King Farris can introduce King as a real person, which can lead to class discussions on fairness and sharing, as you think and talk about what he stood for. And always remember to bring the discussion back to what the children understand in a very real way by reminding them of their own fists and the easiest way to get the fists to open.

Another way to honor MLK is to enter your students in the Scholastic Student Art Contest, celebrating the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington and Dr. King’s call to service. Details available at

The Peace Study Center has these books, a complete curriculum kit, and many more resources to use when teaching about MLK, either on his birthday or throughout the year. Come check us out!

Wendy M. Smith, PhD, joined the PSC Board in 2012. Wendy is currently the chair of the Teacher Education Department within the School of Education at Loyola University Maryland. She teaches classes in literacy education for elementary education majors and graduate students in the Reading Specialist Degree Program. She has been a Peace Corps Volunteer, an executive director of a non-profit advocating for people with cognitive disabilities, an elementary special education teacher and a certified Lamaze instructor. Wendy’s area of expertise is children’s literature and she has written numerous papers on the use of books that contain characters that are marginalized by society; these include books with children who have cognitive and other disabilities, children who are abused, children who live in war zones and African American children.

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