“Mirrors and Windows”: Teaching MLK and Social Justice in an Early Childhood Setting By Anna Goodkind
Teaching social justice and diversity as an early childhood educatoris both important and challenging. We want to make sure that we are acknowledging important events, people, holidays, and situations but that we are also infusing social awareness, action, and empathy into our students’ learning each day, no matter the time of year. Each year around Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, or African American History Month in February,all of the books by African American authors suddenly appear on classroom bookshelves, posters of important African American historical figures line hallway walls, and students discuss diversity, fairness, equality, and justice. But what about the rest of the school year? Isn’t there a place for experiences and conversations like these ones throughout the breadth of each student’s learning experience? Because the experiences of Martin Luther King and those who fought with him for freedomand equality did not stop after one day in January or one month in February, and seeking social justice is a lifelong endeavor that shifts and changes with our society’s climate. If we are educating the future citizens of our world, yes we must teach them about Martin Luther King and other justice warriors like him, but we must also keep the conversation going around and after that day or month, infusing it into our lessons and our children’s experiences on a daily basis.
I once heard one of my favorite children’s book authors, Jacqueline Woodson, speak at a conference on Progressive Education. She saidsomething that really stood out to me and remains one of my favorite quotations to this day(though sheacknowledged that it was not her own quote, I am unsure to whom it can be attributed before her). She said that children must consistently have access in their daily lives to “books that act as both mirrors and windows—mirrors of their own experiences, and windows into the experiences of others.” So yes, it is important to have books by African American authors and with African American characters on bookshelves in January and February, and for young African American students to see themselves reflected in those pages, but it is just as important to do so year-round in classrooms filled with children of other races. Children need to be regularly exposed to books, images, experiences, and information about those whose backgrounds and lives differ from their own. And this is just one way in which we teach social understanding and empathy to the youngest members of our society.
We do acknowledge Martin Luther King, Jr. around the time that the rest of our community is celebrating his birthday. We discuss diversity and work with the children on self-portraits, noticing our different skin tones, and celebrating our differences while also noticing the ways in which we are all similar. But we do this at other times of year as well—we create and explore self-portraiture throughout the school year. We acknowledge and discuss our shared and differing experiences on a regular basis. And when it comes to talking about social justice and MLK, we don’t pretend that everyone in the past, or even today, celebrates these differences in the same way. We acknowledge that some of the things that make us look different may also inform differences of experience, in both positive and negative ways.
Children at a young age don’t need to have all of the information about Martin Luther King, who he was, or how he lived anddied. But they also don’t need everything to be sugar-coated either. We are doing them a disservice if we only share the good parts of our country’s social history, and they deserve thoughtful and age-appropriate but honest answers to their questions. We want them to be prepared when—because we know, unfortunately, that it will happen—they encounter uncomfortable, unfair, or even dangerous situations and to already have the tools to counter these evils with bravery, empathy, and strength of character.
We must teach them that we will always protect them, but that there have been times, and still are today, when many people have not had the right ideas about others, when people have been wrongly unkind to others who were different from them, and when the laws of the country were unjust and needed to be changed by brave people working together for fairness and equality.These children will inevitably encounter these difficult topics and experience these emotions, and it’s important that they have an outlet and environment in which to explore these things with patient, loving adults who know how to address them in thoughtful and age-appropriate ways.
Here is a conversation I had with my four and five-year-oldstudents last year:
Teacher: What do you know about Martin Luther King?
AA: It’s his birthday.
S: He had a dream.
OK: Is he real?
Teacher: Yes, and this book we are about to read about him is a true story. It really happened.
E: That’s called Nonfiction!
L: Did he die?
AC: He did die.
E: What happened?
AC: A bad guy came by, and the guards tried to fight him, but they couldn’t really do it because sometimes that is really hard.
Teacher: Martin Luther King wanted to help people, especially poor people and people who were treated unfairly.
OK: That’s so kind.
Teacher: He told them to solve problems in peaceful ways.
R: Peaceful means you have to be careful, and calm.
S: And kind.
O: And quiet.
A: It means relaxed.
AC: Peaceful is a good way to solve a problem, without fighting.
OK: It means quiet.
L: And being kind. Martin Luther King was kind.
Teacher: Martin Luther King helped change some of the laws, or rules, that were not fair. There was one rule that said people with darker skin had to always sit in the back of the bus, and only people with lighter skin could sit in the front of the bus.
E: Yes! I have a book of Rosa Parks. She helped change a rule and let black people sit in the front of the bus.
O: I go on the trolley and I sit in the front. I would be sad if someone told me I couldn’t sit wherever I want to.
S: Once I sat in the front of the trolley too.
Teacher: Martin Luther King, and a lot of brave people, helped change some of these laws that were not fair.
E: Brave means when there’s something scary, and you can go do it anyway.
OK: And it means smart.
O: When you’re brave, you’re scared, but you still try to do it.
Teacher: Martin Luther King gave a speech to many, many people. He said that he had a dream, but not a dream like when you are sleeping. It was a dream like a hope for the future…
OK: Like ‘I hope to want something.’
Teacher: Yes! He had a dream for peace, and justice, or fairness, and that everyone would be treated kindly, and for freedom for everyone. What does it mean to be free or to have freedom?
OK: To be safe.
AC: Kids can be free to go to the same school together.
O: Free means that you can’t do something, and then you can.
Teacher: Yes, that people would be free to make their own choices and that people could go where they want and be together, no matter what color their skin is.
I understand that many adults may not be comfortable having a conversation like this one with young children. But it is important for children to sometimes see that discomfort, because they will understand that these things are uncomfortable, these things are difficult to address, sometimes painful, and our emotions can be real and raw. I once had a co-teacher who cried when reading aloud a part of a book about MLK that explained his death and legacy. The children in that class were so enthralled with the story after that, that they brought his character and messages into everything they did for the rest of the school year. They often referenced him on the playground: “I’m helping make peace between my friends who are fighting. I’m being like Martin!” He even found his way into our Jewish holiday experiences: “Esther had to be brave and stand up to Haman in the Purim story, just like Martin Luther King was brave and changed the laws!” Which is just another great example of how we are all similar, and we are all different, how stories and experiences flow and seep into one another, and how we can provide a rich foundation for our students’ lifelong social learning through an environment of many mirrors and windows.
One year, I played the entirety of King’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech to a classroom full of enraptured three and four-year-olds, who gasped at his words and clapped when the people watching from the Washington Mall clapped. After the video finished, one child commented: “He used good, big words and there were millions and millions of people there.” And another added, “And his dream came true.” I appreciate the optimisticview of these children and I hope that they can keep that positivity as they age, acknowledge the real challenges that face each of us in different ways in our world, and become a collective force for good in our society. Because they each have their own “good, big words” to share with the world, and it is our job to make sure they have the right tools with which to do so.
Recommended book list:
The Other Side, by Jacqueline Woodson
Freedom Over Me, by Ashley Bryan
Happy Birthday Martin Luther King Jr, by Jean Marzollo
Martin’s Big Words: The Life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., by Doreen Rappaport
I Have a Dream,by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Amazing Grace, by Mary Hoffman
The Girl with the Brown Crayon, by Vivian Gussin Paley
Why Are All the Black Children Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? And Other Conversations About Race, by Beverly Daniel Tatum