Black History Month is winding down. As I have mentioned before, I don’t typically adjust my curriculum for February as I teach Black history year-round. However, my school celebrates the month by having students across all grade levels choose a person or an event to learn more about during their passing periods.
Predictably, many of my students tried to do their project on Martin Luther King, Jr. Even though this was not a project for my class specifically, I stopped them. I made every single one of them choose someone else.
For the sake of posterity, Martin Luther King Jr. is the single most important figure in the Civil Rights movement and arguably the most consequential person in American history of anyone period to date, of any race. Full stop. Given that this is true, why did I make all of those students choose someone else for their project? Actually, I did it for precisely those same reasons.
First, obviously they can’t all do their project on the same person, and there was no fair way to choose who would be the student that would.
Secondly, MLK is deservedly the most popular figure in Black history. This means by the time my 7th and 8th graders get to me they already have a working knowledge of him. This is evident by the fact that many of students were doing their projects from memory before I stopped them.
Given that the purpose of any school project is to learn, I thought it was appropriate to mandate that students choose someone other than MLK to base their projects around. This project was for Black History Month, not Martin Luther King Day. This decision was predictably met with moans, groans, and sighs. If you have ever taught middle school, you know the type. However, by the conclusion of the project, I was only more convinced I made the right decision. Students were forced to navigate out of their comfort zone and actually learn about people, places, and events from Black history that weren’t mandated by the state. Many of them tried to feign annoyance at my rule, but I could tell they were genuinely intrigued.
One student who originally was doing his project on Martin Luther King pivoted to the Tuskegee Airmen. I actually had to make him close the movie “Red Tails” during math block.
This situation is actually a good reminder for people who aren’t students as well, including myself. You could teach an entire Ivy-League course on the life and philosophy of Martin Luther King Jr, so this is in no way to suggest that his legacy lacks depth. However, our understanding of it often does. Some people have reduced an entire movement down to a speech. If we don’t learn about other figures from Black history, we literally will lack the context to understand what made MLK so great.
I think next year I will allow students to do their projects on MLK again with the caveat that they have to explore sections of his legacy they don’t already know about. Instead, of the “I Have a Dream speech,” what about “Letter from a Birmingham Jail?”
We need to make sure that our teaching of anyone’s history is not just skin deep. (Pun intended)