Engaging Kids for MLK Day

King and Johnson With Martin Luther King Day just around the corner, I’ve frequently been asked of late, “How do you get kids meaningfully engaged in Civil Rights and Black History?” It’s a good question. Other than the appeal of the teacher, why should some white kid in suburban Flagstaff care about King’s work fifty years after the fact?

I’ve heard about good simulations, such as the one where classrooms segregate students based on eye-color, hair-color, or by lottery and allow one group to abuse the other for a day. Such activities are powerful—but they’re also controversial. Civil Rights is an important topic, but there’s no reason to do something that’s going to make your students cry, land you in your administrator’s office, or possibly require the services of an attorney.

A better way, I’m convinced, is to re-enact actual events through Read Aloud Plays. Imagine your students actually marching in Birmingham, getting thrown off the bus in Montgomery, or being tear-gassed in Selma.
How can we create in our students true empathy for what victims of racism experienced? How about having them enact the play The Girl Who Got Arrested in which—a year before Rosa Parks—a teenaged girl becomes the first to get thrown in jail for challenging Montgomery’s segregated bus system?

How do we get kids today to feel what the crusaders felt? Have them enact the play, Sitting Down for Dr. King, in which a white boy in Greensboro watches the Lunch Counter Sit-ins unfold around him and ultimately sacrifices his own interests to join the protestors.

Using Read Aloud Plays to teach Civil Rights comes with the added benefits that the approach improves reading fluency, aids comprehension, and helps meet 47 Common Core Standards. Forty-seven!  Nearly all of my Black History plays have been previously published in Scholastic classroom magazines such as Storyworks and Scope, so they meet the highest standards. And because I’ve been writing and using Black History plays with my own students for nearly twenty years, I can attest to the fact that kids LOVE enacting these plays and learning about these events.

We Shall Overcome, my most popular Civil Rights play on TeachersPayTeachers, re-enacts the Birmingham Children’s Crusade. Television reporters cover the events as Bull Conner bullies protestors and school kids, and firehouses blast away as crusaders sing, “We shall overcome/we shall overcome/ we shall overcome someday…” Donning the persona of these characters, be they Bull Conners, MLKs, or Ruby Bridges, changes a person. Kids love to discuss how it makes them feel.

So, how do you get kids meaningfully engaged in Civil Rights and Black History this MLK Day? With Read Aloud Plays. For tips on how to get the most out of Read Aloud Plays, download my free article, “Why Use Drama?”

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