I was always uneasy this time of year as a classroom teacher.

With the celebration of Martin Luther King, Jr coming up, I was never quite sure what to do.  I felt any book or activity I could arrange for the children was simply inadequate to convey the significance of the values that MLK stood for and his impact on our world. 

Spending time in our classrooms this week and following each classroom’s Daily Reflections, I have been amazed at the way our teachers approach the holiday.  True to our roots as a constructivist learning environment, our teachers have turned the work of thinking over to the children.  Perhaps I was nervous each January as a teacher because, faced with the overwhelming significance of the holiday, I forgot what we know to be true as educators. I forgot that our primary role as teachers is not teaching children what we know, but building a space for them to think and build their own knowledge and ideas.

So, our most powerful tools of teaching around MLK remain questions and not answers.  As desperate as I may have been as a classroom teacher to ensure that my students “got” the holiday, it is not an excuse to shift our pedagogical beliefs.  The teachers in classroom 3 reminded me of this in our weekly meeting yesterday.  One of the ways in which the values of MLK are being addressed in their classroom is through the block area.  Their students have been engaged in “block talk” around what rules are fair for all students – how to keep the block area clean enough for building? How to ensure that all students have enough blocks to build? How to make sure that no one’s structure is prematurely knocked over? This, then, would be their access to fairness.  Not some abstract notion of what it means to be equal, but an authentic, daily experience.  Will this student-driven conversation make its way back to MLK and be connected to the calendar? Perhaps.  But more important is that the students in that class see themselves as agents of fairness; that they see themselves as competent arbiters concerned about the welfare of the community.  And most importantly, the students are constructing their own answers to these questions rather than be provided with them by the teachers.

But there’s more.  My anxiety around the holiday as a former teacher is not yet abated.

The fact is, discrimination is a developing skill that we actively seek to cultivate in our students. We dress it up in a fancy term – “visual discrimination.”  Many of the routines in our classroom support this: “The square block goes on this shelf; the cylinder block goes over there.” “What color belongs at the end of this pattern?” “Let’s put all the puzzle pieces with straight lines on the outside because they are the edges.” Being able to visually discriminate is a crucial skill that sets the foundation for many skills that will follow, such as letter and number recognition, coding, and matrix reasoning.

But I never quite got how our young children can make sense of the teachers push to categorize by quality and then, suddenly, around MLK day hear that, “We are all the same” and “Color doesn’t make us different.”  How to reconcile the child’s emerging discriminatory capacity with our desire to include all in our version of humanity?

The teachers in classroom 7 helped me breakthrough my deadlock on this one. They reminded me that in addition to visual discrimination, children are also developing the ability to unify a disparate set of objects.  Looking at a collection of plastic figures, the child begins to realize that while some belong on the farm, some in the Jurassic period, and some in the fishtank, they are all animals.  They have a unifying element despite their differences.  With this in mind, they described some different activities they are thinking about to flesh this out.

So, while I may still be unsure myself on how to grapple with the weighty issues around MLK, I rest confidently that our teachers have examined the pedagogical tension with insight and clarity.  This point was driven home as I read through a daily reflection coming from classroom 4 earlier this week.  The students had listened to the famous “I have a dream” speech during rest time.  (Which is itself heartwarming to picture: the powerful oratory tones resonating through a dark, quiet classroom of 4 and 5yr olds, lying down I imagine with their eyes wide open, transfixed by the unmasked strength in MLK’s voice and phrases.) Afterwards, the teachers, of course, had questions but not answers.  They built a space for children to express their own emerging ideas and thoughts. 

And boy, did they.  The conversation concluded with a girl remarking, “Martin was wrong.” She went on to explain that she heard him talk about black and white skinned people, but she knows that people aren’t actually those colors – that we are all different shades of brown.  MLK was wrong? Who do you know with the audacity to say that? 

Only a child in an intentional learning environment, structured to prompt deep and provocative thinking. So as we approach the celebration of MLK, how can we as parents and educators continue to provide this open space for thinking? What can we do to show our children it is in fact their ideas that matter?

Shabbat shalom,