In January, I prepared materials for Martin Luther King Jr Day. I have 8 four-year-olds in my class, so I expected a limited attention span. However, despite my expectation that the subject may be somewhat above their heads, I wanted to give it a shot, and give them a shot, and treat them like maybe they were capable of more attention and understanding
I’m glad I gave it a shot, because not only did they pay attention, they became completely engaged and inquisitive. My explanation to them of Martin Luther King Jr was simple, but thorough, and we had some books I had checked out from the library to help: The Colors of Us and Martin Luther King. I explained how Martin lived when a lot of people had a silly idea that people’s skin was the most important part about them, and whatever color your skin made it so you could or couldn’t go to schools, buy things, etc in some places. We covered the whole story, how he didn’t hit people even when he got angry and there were mean to him, how the laws were bad so he talked to people and he got ideas to change the laws, and even how some people didn’t like his ideas to treat everyone the same so they killed him.
Then we talked about how we treat people, appropriate ways to express feelings and disagreement, and a lot of the kids had some great lines of inquiry, comments, and input: “Why did he go to jail if the laws weren’t fair? He was doing the right thing. He was making good choices, and other people were making bad choices, and he tried to help them and they hurt his body! He had good ideas, it’s not how people are inside that’s what is important, I would tell him to live here because I love him, and people here want to treat people fair like he did, and we won’t hurt his body, except he died. But if another person has ideas to be fair and have good laws, I won’t hurt them even if they look different or have different ideas from me, because they’re like Martin King who was good and I like him.”
The kids became so engaged with these ideas of fairness, equality, and learning more about Martin Luther King Jr that we made it part of our February work, which was Black History Month! We colored portraits using only shades of brown, and used Homemade Play Doh dyed with various brown spices such as curry or coffee to explore creating people and letters, and discuss the ideas and identities we had talked about. Also, those activities can be great for kids with different sensory issues.
As we continued to talk about it through all of Black History Month, the kids were able to really gain some concrete ideas that built their empathy and their understanding of choices and responsibility. As one child said, “I choose my friends! I love my friends and I don’t care about their skin. That was a bad rule. I can love boys or girls, or people with light skin or people with dark skin, and its my choices!”
Doing this, we were able to continue to develop important social-emotional skills, as well as reinforcing those by trying to write new words we’re learning in our journals (FAIR, EQUAL).
Good luck finding fun ways to work in number and writing skills into your own “tough” lessons, and remember to give your kids a little more credit! They are little people, and with your help, they can navigate this tough stuff, and gain the skills they will need the rest of their life to navigate difficult issues!