Most children will learn about Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in elementary school during February’s Black History Month. But kids also get a day off from school to celebrate Martin Luther King Jr. Day, observed on the third Monday of January, in honor of his January 15th birth date.
For some kids, it’s just another day out of school, but it doesn’t have to be. It can be the start of a broader discussion and commitment to civic engagement. We spoke with Parent Toolkit expert Mary Ellen Daneels, a high school civics teacher at Community High School in West Chicago, about how parents can use the day off to jumpstart civic-mindedness in their kids.
Daneels says one simple way to honor the legacy of Dr. King is by having a conversation about who Dr. King was and what his actions meant to this country. With the breadth of Dr. King’s teachings and actions, it can be difficult to pinpoint when and where to start the conversation with your child, but Daneels has lent us some advice on how to begin, no matter what your child’s age is.
In elementary school, students already have knowledge and awareness of the civil rights movement. Talking about the principles of equality, justice and tolerance, and what that means and how we can show that to our friends and demonstrate that to our families and others in the larger community, is a good starting point. You can do that in a very simple way with elementary school students by highlighting the age of some of the movement’s heroes. For example, Ruby Bridges was only six-years-old and in the first grade when she became the first African American student to integrate an all-white school in the South. You can draw from stories like this to talk with your kids about other children who had major impacts on society.
In middle school, kids are forming their own identity and relationships start becoming complex. During this time, some pre-teens face conflicts with others and attempt to figure out solutions for themselves for the first time. Even if your child isn’t having issues with others, you can talk about how they can choose to deal with obstacles that come their way or interact with people who might be in opposition to them. Discussing Dr. King’s non-violent approach to conflict and the value that he placed on living in peace can help your child think about how to engage with others. To further the conversation, ask your child to reflect on how people can practice equality and forgiveness in their relationships.
In high school, kids are getting a better idea of how they can be civil actors in their community.
Give them space to practice civil discourse, provide them with a safe space to ask questions and seek answers, help them to understand biases on both sides, and allow them to take action to make real change in their community.
High school is a great time for youth to join debate teams and academic groups that allow them to practice tolerance and learn how to effectively communicate with others, even when they disagree with them.
Daneels says that you as a parent have a responsibility to model civic mindedness, like any positive quality you want your kids to learn. Consider yourself a change agent and encourage your child to do the same.
“I think a lot of us are really good about being thermometers and taking the temperature around us and complaining about whatever the situation might be. What I really want to do for my students and what I think parents need to do is not only take the temperature in their community but help their kids be accurate thermometers. Empower them to be the thermostat that can change the temperature in their community.”
No action or idea is too small when kids decide to get involved and make a positive change. Daneels encourages parents to think about what their child can do right now to be civically engaged in their communities. Maybe that means helping out at a community garden, adopting a highway, or making sure that their child exudes kindness to people who are different from them.
“I think the same way that Dr. King asked how can we better live together, we should ask that in our own communities and take responsibility to be that change that we wish to see,” says Daneels.
In many parts of the country MLK Day is acknowledged as a day of service and it is a great way for kids to get involved. Allow your child to formulate questions around injustices or disparities they’ve noticed and ask them how they’d like to change it. Volunteering for the day is a great way to show them they can make a difference, but try to help them find a service opportunity that matches their interest.
“I think when we just do these acts of service it’s not linked to questions or any sort of principle that kids value therefore it’s important to have conversations about the changes they wish to see and select acts of service based on their responses so that it truly has meaning to them,” says Daneels.
Teaching kids how to respect one another and serve builds good character and goes beyond one day out of the year. What kids learn by being civically engaged equips them with skills like problem solving and cooperation that will benefit them in the future.
“The type of informed action we talk about with Dr. King and encouraging your kid to do on Dr. King day prepares them for college, career and civic life,”Daneels says.
While college and career may be in the distant future for some kids, taking advantage of these kinds of learning opportunities early on helps to prepare kids for the real world.
“When students go on college interviews and they’re asked about how they apply their knowledge or when they're filling out job applications, these kinds of skills and activities qualify them for those opportunities and demonstrates that they have the problem solving skills employers are looking for,” Daneels says. “It also demonstrates their connections to the community which colleges look for to improve their own campuses.”
In the words of Dr. King, “The function of education is to teach one to think intensively and to think critically. Intelligence plus character - that is the goal of true education.”
This year, use Martin Luther King Day as an opportunity to partner and organize with your children and get them to think differently about the day out of school. And you may just be laying the ground work for a life-long commitment to action and involvement.
@EducationNation and Parent Toolkit teamed up with Mary Ellen Daneels (@daneels_m), Civics High School Teacher in West Chicago, and Jennifer Miller (@JenniferSMiller), Family and Educational Consultant, to chat about the importance of raising civic-minded kids. Take a look at what happened during the conversation below. Our #ToolkitTalk chats occur monthly. See what's coming up next and catch up on all of the past conversations.
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