January 15 marks the 30th annual observance of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. And for the last 24 years, it’s been designated a national day of service. So while you may not have to send the kids off to school, think of the holiday as a chance for a little home-schooling.
“Schools are working in partnership with parents to turn children into informed and compassionate citizens of the world, and as children learn about the civil rights movement in school, it is just as important…for students to hear how their parents feel,” says Kelcie Bartley, diversity coordinator at The College School in Webster Groves, Missouri. “Research has been done in recent years to suggest that when families…only provide their child with vague statements like ‘Everyone is equal,’ without having deeper, more explicit conversations [about the civil rights movement], children are left to fill in the gaps with their own understandings of difference.”
Here are her suggestions for ways to honor Dr. King’s legacy and start those important conversations.
For first to fourth graders:
Learn more about black history. “I love Faith Ringgold for first to fourth grades,” says Bartley. The author’s beautifully illustrated books cover a variety of subjects, from stories about Dr. King himself and Rosa Parks to the Underground Railroad. Bartley also recommends Freedom on the Menu: The Greensboro Sit-Ins by Carole Boston Weatherford.
Read together. Books can provide a starting point for parents to discuss the values of the civil rights movement, such as acceptance, perseverance, respect and understanding. They can also tell inspiring stories about children who recognized issues in their community and took action. Some of Bartley’s favorites are How Kind by Mary Murphy, It’s Okay to Be Different by Todd Parr, One by Kathryn Otoshi (which focuses on acceptance), Maple Moon by Connie Brummel Crook (a story about community), and The Name Jar by Yangsook Choi (about self-acceptance).
Walk together. “We must make the pledge that we shall always march ahead,” said Dr. King at the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. Take inspiration from his speech and find a local Martin Luther King, Jr., Day march with a relatively short route and smaller crowds, so participants can move at their own pace. This way, kids can be part of the action (and work off some energy on the walk), but it’s easy to head home if they get tired.
For fifth graders and older:
Watch a parade. Older kids can handle bigger crowds and have the patience to watch a longer parade, so look for one in your town or head to the nearest city. Bartley has taken her own older students to the procession in downtown St. Louis and says a parade is “a powerful learning experience and can provide parents and their children with a great experiential learning opportunity about the past and the issues of the present.”
Volunteer as a family. Middle and high school-aged kids are old enough to spend the day helping out at a local shelter, soup kitchen or food pantry. Check for opportunities through your child’s school, or visit the National Day of Service website and enter your ZIP code to find a place to serve in your community.
No matter how you choose to observe the holiday, what’s most important is that you talk to your kids about it and share your own beliefs. “Although schools are making great strides toward teaching children about the great social justice movements and the values that these movements pushed to the forefront, ultimately, parents and family are the most influential factors in a child’s development around these values,” says Bartley. “Values like acceptance, justice, equity and respect for all people…must start at home and early.”
Keep reading: 5 ways to give back year round
Originally published January 2016.