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Local teachers explain MLK importance to students

Jennifer Sprouse • Jan 21, 2014 at 8:32 AM

Kids across the country may see today as just another day out of school, but teachers in Johnson City Schools are doing their part to educate local youths on what Martin Luther King Jr. Day is really about and the man was who behind the famous “I Have a Dream” speech.

An activist in the civil rights movement, King fought for equality without violence and is remembered each year around his Jan. 15 birthday as a significant figure in American history.

South Side Elementary School fourth-grade teachers Anita Sutherland and Andrea Perry did their instructing in a creative way by having their students write an “I Have a Dream” essay, and then recorded a class video of all their dreams for the future.

Comparing and contrasting King with poet Langston Hughes, the fourth-graders read through King’s speech and through Hughes’ biography. Another part of their lesson plan was reading “My Brother Martin: A Sister Remembers Growing Up with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.,” written by Christine King Farris.

Sutherland and Perry said when they discuss King’s life and legacy in the classroom, they focus on the civil rights movement and how he overcame adversity.

“We discuss Martin Luther King Jr. and his dream and how he made it come true and how he stood behind what he believed,” Sutherland said. “We talk about today’s events and what problems we have today.”

Sutherland and Perry said while topics such as world peace and hunger were mentioned in many of the essays, the kids also wished for things like animal rights and an end to homelessness and bullying.

Luke Johnson, 10, wrote about how he hoped smoking, drinking and graffiti art would be illegal in the future.

“Graffiti ... cost a lot of money to erase it and so I don’t want people having to spend money to erase it,” Johnson said. “For smoking, it’s going to hurt your lungs anyway, so why would you smoke? Alcohol ... can mess with your mind and you could do a lot of illegal things.”

Another fourth-grader had his eye on the world. Joe Johnston, 10, hoped for a future where people would stop killing and abusing one another because of their religious beliefs.

“I got the inspiration because I was at my church and we were having this ... meeting and we were talking about North Korea and how these people are getting abused and treated badly,” Johnston said. “My action plan (to stop the abuse and killing) would just be to have speeches all around the world. I would just go to North Korea straight away and I would help out in any way I could.”

He said he enjoyed and learned a lot from this assignment.

“I learned that ... no matter who you are, or what color you are, to never give up,” Johnston said.

Sharing the video with the rest of the school during an assembly Friday, the fourth-graders smiled brightly as they watched themselves and their classmates recite their dreams.

“They’re very passionate about their dreams,” Perry said. “It’s amazing to see what they think the issues are with their dreams. They had a brainstorming session — my kids — and they had some peer conferences where they talked with one another about some of the issues.

“I had a few girls who felt like there should be a female president and so they just took that to a whole new level. They came up with the ideas on their own. I think they’re finding their independence at this age, and to feel like they can really make a difference really makes an impact on them.”

Sutherland said because of their students’ ages, they didn’t dive into King’s assassination, but “focused on how he believed in non-violence. He fought with his words. Everyone listened to his words.”

On Saturday, a group of girls — six from Science Hill High School and one from University School — braved the cold temperatures to pose for a picture in front of a King-inspired mural outside Taste Budz in downtown Johnson City.

Putting together a diverse group of girls, Marissa Jay White-Quarles said she enlisted the help of her friend and fellow SHHS senior Stephen Street to take the girls’ portrait.

“We all got together to represent the dream Martin Luther King Jr. had and basically just showing unity,” White-Quarles said. “We’re all wearing white shirts and jeans ... to symbolize that we’re all the same and we’re letting ourselves (our ethnicity) be the thing that’s different.”

Each of the girls represented one or more ethnicities, which included Indian, Thai, Chinese, Mexican, Puerto Rican, African-American, Portuguese, Korean and Caucasian.

Choosing to stand in front of the mural — which has stenciled images of King and the words “I Have a Dream” expressed in urban art — as the location for the group shot was a no-brainer, White-Quarles said.

“I couldn’t think of a better location ... because it’s a part of Johnson City that I think is just gorgeous,” she said. “The point that we’re trying to get across is unity and just being diverse, but being united at the same time. Although a lot of people want to say it’s 2014, we have a black president, we’ve obviously come a long way. We have, but we can keep going. There’s always room for improvement.”

White-Quarles said she views King as a role model and a hero.

“He’s an inspiration because he did more than just be a black man,” she said. “He really valued the human race. He did so much for everyone.”

Even though the federal holiday will have come and gone, contemporary issues and critical minds teacher Kayla Wilson at Science Hill said she’ll be holding a discussion with her classes about King on Tuesday.

“We’ll definitely read his ‘I Have a Dream’ speech and I’m hoping to pull out some other texts, like his letter from jail and things like that, but then we’re going to be able to have discussions about not even just him and his life, but how he handled things,” Wilson said.

“This topic is such an important one to bring in the classroom. I think they know a lot about him, just because all throughout elementary school and middle school, you do talk about him when the day rolls around in January.

“What I really love being able to do with high schoolers is we can take it to a higher level and we talk about things that are a little touchier that you can’t talk about when you have a classroom full of 12-year-olds,” she said.

“We can talk about the issue of race. Do we still feel like racism is alive in this area? Do we see it in our communities? How do you deal with that? Those are things that I wouldn’t feel comfortable talking about with younger children, but with my high schoolers, they’re ready to talk about that and they want to.”

On her lesson plan for Tuesday, Wilson said she plans to show footage of the March on Washington and King’s speech. She said the students also will dive into reading other speeches and primary source documents to give them a better understanding of the time period and context.

“I just hope that we can talk about him and talk about the impact he’s had on America today,” Wilson said. “I think they’re going to take away a lot from it. I think they’re going to realize this isn’t one of those things we talk about that happened 200 years ago and isn’t relevant anymore. This isn’t like the War of 1812 or the French and Indian War. This is something that (happened approximately) 50 years ago. It makes it hit a little closer to home, I think.”

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