Make It Count: Civil Rights Resources That Go Beyond “I Have A Dream”

How do teachers go beyond “I Have a Dream” in order to make the civil rights era more meaningful to students? Continuing with our mini-series dedicated to the 50th anniversary of Dr. King’s speech, we decided to take a look at the different ways educators have communicated the significance of this historical period to their students.

Here were a few suggestions we found to be the most effective (and creative!):

1.) Interview A Grandparent

Suggested by a teacher in a New York Times post, interviewing a grandparent creates the ability to associate history with a member of one’s family, serves to define the significance behind the civil rights movement, and helps create a personal relationship for the student. Oftentimes, students are under the impression that after slavery was abolished at the end of the Civil War, all men were treated fairly and equally. Hearing their grandparents recall events throughout the 1950s and 1960s will help to redefine this misguided idea that the civil rights battle ended with the war and help show how prominent the civil rights movement was in shaping America’s history.


2.) Re-Enact Harpers Ferry

Working well for the history leading up to the civil rights movement, one teacher had her students play out the Harpers Ferry court case in which John Brown was tried and convicted of treason against the state of Virginia. By assigning each student a role in the courtroom including a bailiff, prosecutor, defender, and several jury members, you can have them research the court maneuvers and story from each of the different perspectives. Through this, they can better understand some of the underlying issues of the Civil War.

3.) Getting Lyrical

A method better-suited for the older crew, I had a teacher in high school incorporate the civil rights movement with the popular music and lyrics of that time period and I’ve never forgotten it since. Throw on a little Bob Dylan “Blowin’ in the Wind,” or “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll,” and you’ll have the emotion-ridden teens hooked. After listening to the songs, have them take an evaluative look at the lyrics at hand, asking both how it is relevant nearly 50 years later, and what those words mean to them as they read.

If you feel that Dylan and his raspy ways might be a little too slow for your students, spice it up by throwing on remixes of Martin Luther King’s “I Have A Dream” through “Hip-Hop Speaks to Children,” or my personal favorite, found below. Click here for more of the most popular civil rights songs (you’ll be surprised at what you see.)

4.) All Song And Dance

Following in line with the previous suggestion, we read about teachers who contributed to a New York Times post about teaching civil rights that found success through revisiting music as a basis for a unit of instruction. When they shared with their elementary students music from Africa during the time of slavery, and then music of Dr. King’s era, followed by the jazz era, students were able to actively engage with the material while viewing PowerPoints and books on the subject at hand.

Don’t feel like finding the music yourself? No problem, check out Let Freedom Sing: How Music Inspired the Civil Rights Movement, and you’ll find a compelling look into the singers and songwriters who fought for their rights through verse.

5.) “Save The Last Word For Me”

The “Save the Last Word for Me” teaching strategy comes from the Facing History website and engages the whole classroom in a close examination of a text. Hand out copies of Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream Speech” and three index cards to each student. Ask students to read the speech on their own, highlight three sentences that stand out, and then write one sentence on the front of each index card. On the back of their index cards, students should write about why they chose that quote – what it reminded them of, what in history or today they connected it to, or what it meant to them. Students then divide into small groups of three and read their quotations.

 6.) Redefine “Black History”

What belongs under the heading “black history”? Does it include sports, entertainment, and business? Does it include people with no claim to fame whatsoever? What is missing? These are some of the questions presented from The Learning Network’s article covering black history month.

jackie robinson

Discuss the attributes of “history,” including popular and oral history. Ask students to explore the archives of The New York Times or follow continuing coverage, looking for different stories that fill in our knowledge of the African-American experience. Students can compile a collection of “new history” sources and explain how each contributes to our understanding of the civil rights movement.

Feel free to comment below with more suggestions.


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