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New York City

Teaching the Dream to Preschoolers
By Margaret Blachly

In our multi-ethnic, multi-cultural, inclusion classroom of three and four year olds at the Bank Street Family Center, we teach the children from the very beginning that every single one of them is special and unique, and that differences are something to be valued. We also teach them to use their words to negotiate problems and we help them to respect each other’s feelings. The classroom is an ideal environment, and we hope to send them into the world with these same values. This year our class was invited to an assembly to celebrate the life and work of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. As a team of teachers, we reflected on how to introduce this piece of history and the importance of the work of a great leader to our children. We realized that the children were already familiar with the teachings of Martin Luther King, Jr. because they are taught his teachings in the classroom every day.

The history of segregation and the Civil Rights movement is complex, and we needed to present it to the children in a concrete way that they could relate to. We decided that a combination of literature, discussion and song would give the children images, words and key vocabulary to hold onto as they worked through the concepts.

We started off the circle-time by asking the children what they knew about Martin Luther King, Jr. and only a few of them shared any information. With the help of the illustrations from Faith Ringold’s book If A Bus Could Talk: The Story of Rosa Parks and the Civil Rights Movement, we told the children that many years ago in our country, before many of their parents were even born, things were different. There were some rules called laws saying that white children and black children couldn’t go to school together, and that people with darker skin had to ride in the back of the bus. We asked the children “what would you feel like if you came to school and you were told that because you had brown hair (to a girl with brown hair) or blue eyes (to a boy with blue eyes) or because you were a girl, that you weren’t allowed to come to school?” Immediately the children chorused that they would feel bad, sad, angry, and that they might even cry.

One child said that you have to follow rules even when you don’t like them. We had to tell her that most rules are important, for keeping people safe, but that this time the rules were wrong, the laws were unfair. The looks on the children’s faces showed their processing of this information. We then told the children that Martin Luther King was like a teacher, who spoke to many people, both black people and white people, Latino, Asian, every kind of person, and taught them to stand up and say that the laws were wrong. Martin Luther King, Jr. had a dream that all kinds of children would go to school and be friends, and that when people worked together, they were able to change the laws.

As the children absorbed these new ideas, our music teacher taught us the songs we would sing at the assembly. Lyrics of the songs that repeated were “Hold the dream of Martin Luther King…he was a peace loving man…change that law.” At the assembly, parents, teachers and children sang these words together.

What is the most rewarding is that weeks later, when they request the Hold the Dream song, we know that they now have a concrete connection to this great person who worked to change laws that were “unfair.” We remember Martin Luther King when we discuss differences, when we use words and peaceful methods to solve problems. As one four-year-old pointed out, “when someone had good ideas and then they died, we can still use their ideas.” Martin Luther King has been brought to life again for the next generation. #

Margaret Blachly is a 3’s-4’s Teacher at the Bank Street Family Center.


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