I had been feeling quite timid about having a forthright discussion about Martin Luther King with my three year olds. We "threes" teachers had discussed how best to have this discussion with our young students.
Obviously, there was no need to go into graphic detail about the demonstrations, the violence, his assassination. Leave this to future years of schooling, a more appropriate developmental age.
At the same time, as I told my Teaching Resident, Martin Luther King should be a thread woven into the fabric of what we do in the classroom, supporting us, always present. His approach to resolving conflicts is the approach we have in our school. His standing up for justice, asserting himself, standing up for what is right is a skill I want to nurture in my students. I want them to question authority, to dare to challenge the norm - not simply to be oppositional, but because they are thoughtful, reflective people who seek fairness. I work to create a classroom environment where we have frequent discussions - at whole group time, with small groups of children, and one on one - about why we do things a certain way, how best to make make amends, whether something is right or wrong, what is fair, and what ideas do we have to make things better. I believe it is important for the children to see me make mistakes and to hear me apologize when I do something hurtful. It is essential to hear different opinions and ideas from one another and learn that is okay, and to learn to be respectful of our differences. All of these are me "weaving Dr. King into my daily program."
I am inspired by my colleague Tsitsi, our Pre-K teacher, who shared her lovely curriculum with me about Martin Luther King. Tsitsi experienced her daughter being the only African American in an early childhood program and since that time has made it her own personal goal to not let this discussion be ignored or set aside. Using an anti-bias approach, she is forthright about our nation's history (at a developmental appropriate level), and encourages discussions about differences and similarities, what is just, and how to resolve conflicts. When I popped into her room last week, the children were creating a large school bus with multicultural faces at all windows of the bus - a bus for everyone. Delightful.
Tsitsi's insightful approach fueled me. For our read aloud yesterday, I read Happy Birthday, Martin Luther King by Jean Marzollo and illustrated by J. Brian Pinkney and asked them to think about why is Martin Luther King a hero?
(There are many books for children about Martin Luther King - I loved the simple, direct writing by Jean Marzollo and I am particularly drawn to the artwork by J. Brian Pinkney. The beautiful illustrations are created with scratchboard and oil pastels.)
When I read about whites and blacks being separate - sitting in different parts of the bus, attending different schools - the children gave that part of the story an immediate "thumbs down" - as is our classroom ritual whenever we hear or see something that isn't right. When I read about this being the law, they looked at me very puzzled, not understanding. I had the sense that I was reading a fantastic tale from which their daily lives are much removed.
The children were delighted by J. Brian Pinkney's illustration of Dr. King's speech in Washington, D.C., at the Lincoln Memorial, showing the reflecting pool and the Washington Monument. One after another and all at once they exclaimed,
"I live there!"
"I live in Washington, D.C.!",
"I have been to the Washington Monument!"
"I know that place!"
Yes, three year olds are a very sweet and simple age. The world is oh so good.
I named Martin Luther King as a true hero, because he dared to speak up about things that were wrong, insisting that things needed to change. He challenged people to behave better. I emphasized that he never hurt anybody in trying to get what he wanted. I did a little bit of preaching,
"It's the same thing we do here in the Big Cats' classroom, " I said,
"We use our words, not our hands, when we are angry.
We speak up and tell our classmates, 'I don't like that.'"
As our discussion concluded, one student exclaimed,
"Wow! And I thought superheroes always fly!"
Perhaps there are many different ways to fly.
I am soaring at how invisible the pain in our world is to these children.
They have families who love them dearly and
classrooms where they are safe, nourished, trusted, and challenged.
May this provide the strong foundation for them to be future leaders who seek to solve disparities in our world.