Teachers Discuss How They Approach MLK Day


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For teachers, the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday comes with some heavy challenges. One reporter sat down with a group of teachers, who talked about keeping the lesson fresh — and whether white teachers are prepared to teach about civil rights.


For teachers, the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday poses some difficult challenges - for one, how to make an annual holiday fresh each year, especially one loaded with the potentially uncomfortable issues of race and class. Beth Fertig of member station WNYC sat down with six teachers from different types of schools in New York City to hear how they make the holiday meaningful.

BETH FERTIG, BYLINE: As a history buff, Luciano D'Orazio loves teaching about Martin Luther King Jr. But as an elementary school teacher, he says the holiday can get a little formulaic, with too many references to the famous quotes like: I have a dream So to get his students to understand segregation, D'Orazio has them experience it.

LUCIANO D'ORAZIO: I would take some of the darker skinned children and move them to another table. And with the remainder of the children, I would tell them, good, congratulations. You guys are all going to receive - will be like an A or a level four in social studies and you don't have to do any more work for the rest of the year.

FERTIG: For the darker skinned kids, the message is different.

D'ORAZIO: Now, all of you have double the homework that you used to have, and whatever you do, you're going to get a level two, which is basically a C or a D.

FERTIG: D'Orazio is the social studies coordinator at P.S. 150 in the South Bronx, an elementary school that's mostly poor and Hispanic. He admits this lesson can get a little upsetting for the kids because some of them might take it as too real.

D'ORAZIO: So the minute I see someone, you know, start to cry or start to get angry, I start to pull them back. I say, OK. Was I being fair in treating you this way? And they get it right away.

FERTIG: That type of in-your-face teaching was debated by the six educators. They spoke candidly about how hard it can be to make a good lesson about an American icon, especially for teenagers.

DUANE WILLIAMSON: We don't have to introduce them to King at this age. All we have to do is open up their understanding.

FERTIG: High school kids think they've heard it all before, says Duane Williamson, who teaches English at a new public school in Brooklyn called Pathways for Technology. He uses King's 1968 "I've Been to the Mountaintop" speech to explore the literary device of foreshadowing.

WILLIAMSON: Because as we know, or most of us know, less than 24 hours later, he was cut down by an assassin's bullet when he ended the speech saying, you know, I don't know what's going to happen to me and longevity has its place. And - but he's been to the mountaintop.

KEITH CHRISTIANSEN: If there's any danger in teaching about MLK as a hero, it's - a colleague of mine put it this way: That he was a very big tree in forest of people who were acting at the time.

FERTIG: Keith Christiansen, who teaches middle school in Brooklyn, says it's important for kids to know there were other civil rights leaders. Karen Zaidberg, who teaches at the private Manhattan Country Day School, suggests ways to make this relevant throughout the year.

KAREN ZAIDBERG: If you're talking about American history, why not talk about the underlying themes constantly of activism and resistance throughout and not have it live in this – so there's one day with this one man and he is this emblem of all of these things. I feel like that's a current that goes through everything.

FERTIG: Making time to teach about civil rights also requires a good deal of thought about what's appropriate for children of different ages and some self-reflection.

In our panel of six teachers, four were white. Elementary school teacher Romero Ross, who is black, threw out this statement.

ROMERO ROSS: I do believe that white teachers can not teach the issue of race or Dr. King or any other type civil rights movement as well, as relatable as an African-American teacher.

WILLIAMSON: If I were white, I would say something.

CHRISTIANSEN: I'm sorry. I'd say that'd depend on the teacher, for starters, but...

FERTIG: Although Duane Williamson and Keith Christiansen disagreed with Ross, they acknowledged there is a challenge when white educators teach minorities about civil rights.

Katie Ulrich, who's white, teaches first grade at a Brooklyn charter school that's mostly black and Hispanic.

KATIE ULRICH: My own education surrounding Black History Month, surrounding MLK Day, is lacking, so I had to go back and read what Malcolm X said, read what he's - you know, really start to do a little bit of self-discovery around holes in my own education.

FERTIG: By confronting personal limitations, she said teachers can only get better at educating their students about MLK Day and throughout the school year.

For NPR News, I'm Beth Fertig in New York.

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