Once upon a time, I had a conversation with a child about their recent MLK day lessons. It went something like this (forgive the grammar, as I’ve tried to write it as closely as I can to how I remember):
Student: Don’t even say that name. It’s scary.
Me: What name? Martin Luther…
Student: (close to tears) Yes, yes..don’t say it!
Me: Can I give you a hug?
Student: (nods head) Mm-hmm.
Me: Can you tell me what scares you? Maybe talking about it will help you feel better.
Student: It’s just that people were so mean and that part where they, you know, somebody shot him.
Me: (silence, not knowing quite what to say) It’s okay to be scared. (more silence) Those people WERE really mean. It scares me sometimes too. (pause to think a moment) Do you know why Martin Luther King was so important?
Student: Because he made a speech?
Me: Well, yes. He made lots of speeches. He used to travel to different places and talk to different groups of people and give them hope. He spread a message of hope and love and kindness and peace and hugs like ours.
Student: (breaks a smile)
Me: Whenever you feel scared about…you know…the scary part, just think about the hope and the love and the kindness and the peace. And think about togetherness. Brown people like me and some of your friends would not be able to be together in this school if it weren’t for people like Martin Luther King. How does that make you feel?
Me: If you ever need to talk about something that makes you scared, you can come talk to me. Okay?
I thought about this conversation and it made me wonder: What opportunities do we provide our students to unpack the emotions that come with lessons about MLK and other social justice issues?
This post is not intended to answer the question or give a “ten-step guide to emotionally supportive social justice lessons for young children.” It is simply to ask. I believe that inherent in each question is the answer, which is particular to each individual.
For me this question brought me to four lessons:
- Children are intuitive, perceptive, deeply emotional beings. This is not a weakness but a strength. In all that we do, we should acknowledge their ability to see through to the core and heart of all things.
- They can handle the truth. It’s important to serve things in child-sized chunks. However, sugarcoating history is not the answer.
- These lessons need time. As adults, we need time to deliver the information in child-appropriate and sensitive ways. As children, they need time to digest the information and a forum to discuss feelings of fear, anger, hope, love, and other emotions that arise from these lessons.
- Finally, schools can be a field of infinite possibilities for the healing of the collective wounds that we carry around topics of race and inequality. Not only can we help children work through processing these stories of injustice but with each lesson, activity, and discussion we bring ourselves closer to the love and unity that we all want to see in the world.
I hope that as I’ve worked through some of my thoughts on this, it has encouraged you to do the same. I also hope that this day brings the opportunity for introspection, rest, and a deeper commitment to change the world one child at a time.