While Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s life is often symbolized in pop culture with his iconic and ever-relevant “I Have a Dream” speech, Dr. King was a prominent figure in the civil rights era who spoke out about many issues that continue to be relevant to this day.
On January 17th, we celebrate Martin Luther King Jr. and his teachings and commit to honoring his legacy by working towards his goal of achieving equality for all. These activities are a great way to round out your lesson plans in the weeks leading up to the holiday, so your students can understand the relevance of Dr. King’s legacy and why he was important enough to get a holiday honoring his teachings.
What’s Your Dream?
Find a publicly available video or audio recording of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s most famous speech (“I Have a Dream”) online. Play the speech for your class and lead a discussion talking about the speech, focusing on comprehension.
This is a somewhat complicated speech written for adults using advanced vocabulary and rhetorical flourishes. It’s normal for young learners to sometimes nod along with a lesson even if they don’t quite get all of it yet.
Once your students have a clear understanding of the point and purpose of the speech, have them write their own short speeches! Students can write a few sentences about their dreams for the future of the world, their families and themselves.
Change the World
Dr. King was a fierce proponent of individual changes and taking smaller actions towards larger goals. Talk to your students about different problems they see in the world, then ask them to come up with solutions.
For example, if they’re concerned about pollution, they can commit to cleaning up litter, reusing the backside of paper instead of starting a new sheet, using less water and turning off the light when they leave their rooms. This activity is perfect for a classbook project. Have your students draw illustrations to match their musings about changing the world, then publish their world-changing ideas in a professionally bound classbook.
Dear Dr. King
What would Dr. King think of the world as it is now? Would he be proud of his legacy? In this activity, instruct students to write a letter to Dr. King as if he was still alive. Encourage them to tell him about everything that’s changed and the effects that his life and work have had on bringing about positive changes towards an equal society.
This is another activity that works well during designated writing times, and it’s a good one to cap off your study of Dr. King, so students will be better informed about how social justice has evolved, thanks to his efforts and teachings.
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Plan for Peace
Have students write an acrostic poem using the word PEACE. Every line should start with a different letter of the word “peace” and offer a solution that contributes towards a more diverse, inclusive and peaceful world. Acrostic poems can rhyme or be free verse, depending on your students’ preferences. After they’ve finished their poems, go around the room discussing what different people chose for each letter.
Plan for Nonviolence
Discuss different kinds of conflicts and disagreements students have been involved in and how they solved the issue or how they think they should have solved it. Next, have your students write a specific conflict—small or large, individual or societal, simple or complex—and then write a series of nonviolent solutions.
These solutions can be fantastical and funny to start with if that helps them start writing (“teleport my brother to another reality, so I don’t trip over his shoes that he leaves on the stairs”), but should also include realistic solutions that students can implement to find a real solution to their conflicts (“explain to my brother that when he leaves his shoes on the stairs, I might trip on them and get hurt”).
Together We’re Stronger
Pass out strips of paper and have students write down one dream or goal on one side and an idea to help achieve that dream or goal on the other side. Encourage students to fill out at least three strips of paper and remind them that we can all work towards different goals at the same time, and we’re allowed to have more than one dream!
Once everyone is done, have them tape their strips of paper into loops and connect the loops together to make a chain. Connect all the chains together and hang them up in the classroom.
The chain becomes a powerful visual reminder that we all have goals and actions we want to take, and if we all work together, we can achieve many goals through collective action and solidarity. Ask students what they think people could accomplish if we all worked together towards larger goals that improve conditions for everyone.
Inspired by Dr. King
Find a series of five or ten quotes from MLK Jr. and share them with your classroom (make these available to your students either by projecting them for the whole class or sharing a document with the quotes on their classroom computers).
Discuss the quotes with the students to verify comprehension and clarify any knowledge gaps, then ask students to choose a quote that resonates with them best. They will use this quote to inspire a drawing, a comic strip or other artwork. After students have created their art, have them identify the quote they chose and share their art with the rest of the class. Then, have them put their art up on a wall grouped by quote.
Once all the art is sorted, take a few minutes to have students think about how the same quotes inspired very different pieces of art. Lead a discussion about how people experience things differently and how those differences add up to a more complete picture than any one perspective.
Have students identify five or so major events in the life of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., then make a timeline. Each event should include the date, a sentence or phrase describing the event and an illustration or abstract symbol portraying the event. All events should be listed in chronological order. Make sure students start by listing the events and dates, then put them in the correct order and plot them on the timeline.
After students have created their timelines, ask which events they chose. Discuss why they chose those events and why they think those events were important. Clarify any knowledge gaps they may have about the historical context of these events, and encourage them to question anything they don’t understand.
Motivation to Succeed
Collect your student’s writing and art into a classbook filled with hopes and dreams for the future to incentivize your young learners to engage more fully and thoughtfully with the activities! Our classbook publishing kits provide you with all the resources you need to turn your students’ work into a beautifully published hardcover book.
Your students can plan with you to decide what the cover should be, choose their favorite assignments, edit them to be print-ready and you’ll have a keepsake copy of the book for your classroom (with the option of parents ordering one for home). Working together, you’ll have a whole class of published authors who contributed thoughtful, impactful pieces about the still relevant and ambitious goals Dr. King spoke about.
Fair or Unfair
Write up a short list of scenarios in which people are treated differently, and ask students whether the decisions were fair or unfair. Make sure to have students talk through their thought process about whether something is fair or not. If another student disagrees, have them also explain their reasoning and ensure students end each scenario with an understanding of whether each scenario’s unequal treatment was justified or arbitrary.
Examples of scenarios include things like “Joey got five cookies, and Rachel got two cookies. Fair or unfair?” or “Joaquin has a drivers license and can drive. Madison doesn’t have a driver’s license and can’t drive. Fair or unfair?” or “Fatima made a drawing, Ramona copied Fatima’s drawing and put it in an art contest. Fair or unfair?”
Don’t be afraid of scenarios that kids might disagree about, such as whether it’s okay to copy if you did all the copying by hand or whether some scenarios don’t have enough information to make a decision (we don’t know why Joey and Rachel got different numbers of cookies).
Use this classic story from Dr. Seuss’s book The Sneeches and Other Stories to get students thinking about unequal treatment based on arbitrary hierarchies enforced in society.
Read or watch the story, then ask your students whether the star-bellied Sneeches were right about the non-star-bellied Sneeches. Follow up by asking about other arbitrary differences they see between people and ask them whether any of those differences make more sense than what the Sneeches did.
This story is easy to find and share with your class since it’s available in book format in most school or classroom libraries and is also available for free online in a .pdf. The animated version is available for free on YouTube.
Activities for Outside the Classroom
Acts of Service
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. spoke often about the importance of serving others. One of the reasons he encouraged acts of service was the community-building aspect and the power that comes with having people willing to help each other when help is needed rather than allowing others to struggle when we have the power to lessen that suffering. In many communities, Martin Luther King Jr. Day is celebrated by doing acts of service in Dr. King’s honor.
Discuss different acts of service students can do to make the world a better place for others. These can be smaller acts (like doing a sibling’s chores for them when they’re having a hard day, helping a friend understand a school assignment or holding the door open for strangers) or larger acts of service (like volunteering to read to elders in assisted living communities or cleaning up a public park).
Suggest to students that they spend the holiday doing helpful things for others to improve their lives and explain that if they form a habit of being kind to others, others will be kind to them in return.
Build Your Community, Make a Difference
For a larger project that can extend beyond the holiday, have your students collaborate on a classroom goal to make something that improves your community or otherwise furthers Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream of tolerance and equality. This can mean creating art to decorate the school, participating in an assembly about diversity and inclusion or working together with other schools to complete something of an even larger scale.
Coordinate with other teachers if you’re interested in one of the bigger goals, like an assembly celebrating the work of Dr. King. Different activities like songs, skits and quotation recitations can be divided between different classrooms based on the abilities of varying grade levels and students.
This January, celebrate the ideals of equality and inclusion to which Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. dedicated his life and encourage students to keep those ideals in mind throughout the rest of the school year. Fifth graders are reaching the age when they can begin to build a more nuanced understanding of the past, and it is important to emphasize crucial figures and events like Martin Luther King Jr. and the Civil Rights Movement.
If you are interested in uniting your students and working with them to become published authors, sign up today to receive your FREE classbook publishing kit. Classbook projects teach them the importance of working together to achieve a singular goal and working hard to achieve their dreams.