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.


10 Little Known Facts About MLK Jr. And “I Have A Dream”

Inching closer to the 50th anniversary of  “I Have A Dream,” it dawned on us that while MLK’s  legacy is as prominent now more than ever, there are still plenty of little-known tidbits about the civil rights activist left to be explored. With that being said, we dug up a list of some of the more interesting (and entertaining) facts about Martin Luther King Jr. for all to enjoy.

1.) Known now to the public as “I Have A Dream,” in reality those words were never included in the original draft of his 1963 speech. Instead, Martin Luther King Jr. ad libbed them  as he stood up at pulpit. The original draft is said to have had several names, including “The Normalcy Speech” and  “A Cancelled Check.”


2.) Considered to have been drafted in New York and then in Washington hours before the rally began, “I Have A Dream” lasts a total of 17 minutes, and MLK Jr. drew his references from a wide variety of sources, including the Bible, the US Declaration of Independence, and even Shakespeare.



‘3.) According to his co-authors for the speech, Dr. King was so busy with the march that even up to TWELVE hours before delivering it, he still did not have a firm idea what he was going to say. As co-author Clarence B. Jones stated in an interview, “the speech went on to depart drastically from the draft I’d delivered,” adding: “In front of all those people, cameras, and microphones, Martin winged it.”

4.) In 1939, Dr. King sang with his church choir in Atlanta at the gala premiere of the movie “Gone With The Wind.”


5.) Martin Luther King Jr. day was not actually recognized as a paid national holiday by all 50 states until the year 2000.

6.) Although he was only 39 at the time of his death, autopsy results revealed the Civil Rights icon had the heart of a 60-year old. The doctor believed this was a result of the stress he endured in his years as a civil rights activist.

7.) Known as one of the most popular street names in the United States, there are over 900 streets named after Dr. King. At least 40 US states  have at least one MLK Jr. road of their own.

mlk street

8.) In 1934, five years after his birth, Dr. King’s family discovered Martin’s name had been recorded wrong on his birth certificate. The certificate said Michael King, and therefore his name had to be legally changed to Martin.

9.) A little known present day fact, Dr. King’s “traveling bible” was used to swear in President Obama at his second inauguration.


10.) In his final speech, delivered on April 3, 1968, Dr. King said “Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And he’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people will get to the promised land. And I’m happy, tonight. I’m not worried about a thing. I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.” Within hours following this speech, MLK was assassinated on April 4, 1968, prompting historians and conspiracy theorists everywhere to argue over whether Dr. King knew his final days were at hand.

A Biographical Ode To Martin Luther King Jr On The 50th Anniversary Of “I Have A Dream”

Next week, on August 28th, we celebrate the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s most well-known speech, “I Have A Dream“.

MLK crowd

(Just take a look at those snazzy cuff links!)

Behind the Book holds a special place for Dr. King and his fight for civil rights.  As he said that fine summer day, “one day this nation will rise up, live out the true meaning of its creed: We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.” This 50-year old declaration of equality reminds us that the foundation of  justice is an acknowledgement of everyone’s humanity and of the potential we all have to create beauty in the world. For us at BtB, this is manifested in our emphasis on culturally relevant literature and identity-affirming projects, which show our students that their voices and experiences are valued and beautiful.

Just as important, is our work to develop our students reading and writing abilities. The ability to  communicate what is lying within each of us, and, as our mission says, the freedom that comes from the ability to read and think independently, is perhaps the most essential tenet of equality.

In honor of this era-defining speech, we will be paying a series of tributes leading up to the anniversary next Wednesday. We will include an interview with one of our dedicated civil rights authors, a Behind the Book’s pick of the best civil rights literature for kids of all ages, and include examples of our student work that defines what “I Have A Dream” means to them 50 years after its deliverance.

Today, we highlight the work of  Chardonnay, a bright third grader from one of our schools. After her class read Alvin Ailey, they worked with the author Andrea Pinkney to write their own biographies of their favorite historical subject.


For more information on this program, feel free to check it out here.

Pictured below is Chardonnay’s biography of Martin Luther King, featured in the final version of the third graders book, Third Grade Wonderful Biographies. Chardonnay perfectly understood Ms. Pinkney’s lesson on how to choose the right facts for a biography.  Included in her biography are facts that pique the reader’s interest, such as:

-Did you know that Dr. King achieved such exemplary scores in high school school that he skipped both his Ninth and Twelfth grade year?

Or how about:

-Along with his church choir, Dr. King sang at the 1939 premiere of the now infamous movie, Gone With the Wind?

Read the rest of Chardonnay’s biography below to learn more.

third grade bios cover


To check out more of the student biographies, take a look at our gallery on

Behind the Book and DECLARE YOUR STYLE!

We have an exciting announcement – and a chance for you to help Behind the Book excite even more kids about reading.

Our friend Danielle Bernstein, blogger at WE WORE WHAT, has been chosen to represent the US in a global Forever 21 contest, DECLARE YOUR STYLE, in which the participants will style three unique back-to-school outfits. The winner of the contest, which will hold its voting through Facebook, will receive $10,000 from Forever 21 to donate to their favorite charity.

Danielle designated Behind the Book as her favorite charity – and this is where you all come in!

Beginning Thursday, August 1st, Danielle will post pictures of her first style on WE WORE WHAT. The second style will appear on Thursday, August 8th, and the third and final style will be posted on Thursday, August 15th. At the bottom of the post will be a link to a Facebook poll, where viewers and supporters may vote for Danielle and Behind the Book.

Here’s the catch – you can only vote once on each style. That’s once between 8/1 and 8/7, once between 8/8 and 8/14, and once between 8/15 and 8/21, the contest’s end date.

You can also vote for us by using this link.

Please vote for WE WORE WHAT so that Behind the Book can continue to motivate young people to become engaged readers by connecting them to contemporary writers and illustrators.

Author Tony Medina Speaks at JHS 13

by Jenna Danoy, Social Media Marketing Intern

Last Friday, our eighth graders at JHS 13 made their walk across the stage and moved on to high school. Accompanying them on their symbolic journey was Behind the Book poet and author Dr. Tony Medina.

It was pretty cool to have a BtheB author speaking at JHS 13’s graduation. Last year, our Executive Director Jo Umans was asked to speak, and it was awesome to be so admired by one of our schools!

This year, Tony worked with class 802 and their teacher, Mr. Luster Chauncey. During his two visits, Tony inspired his students to write their own poetry, which was turned into the anthology Where 802 is From. Due to his involvement with JHS 13’s students, Tony was asked to speak at their graduation.

Where 802 is From was published this year by Behind the Book. It features 18 poems, and lovely student-made artwork.

Dr. Medina began his address by giving his thanks to the JHS 13 class for letting him speak to them, and then he shared his own background.

“Growing up in the Bronx, I didn’t know what I wanted to be when I grew up. Every week I wanted to be something different,” he said, no doubt affirming the graduates’ own uncertainties about the future. “But what that showed me was that I had an active imagination. A desire to be somebody, to aspire to something.”

Dr. Tony Medina speaks at JHS 13's Class of 2013 graduation.

Dr. Tony Medina speaks at JHS 13’s Class of 2013 graduation.

Tony also gave the students a hope of finding themselves quickly. “In ninth grade, I found my true calling and lifelong passion, which was to be a writer,” he said. “I also learned that in order for me to be a writer, I had to be a reader.”

Behind the Book has been working with JHS 13 for eight years – such a long time! We are incredibly proud of the students and teachers with whom we have worked, and we think it’s really amazing to see how much of an impact we have had over the years. It was also quite nice to have Tony reaffirm everything we have worked to teach in our programs in sharing his story.

Dr. Tony Medina is an award winning poet and author. He has written over fifteen books for adults and children, and has been published many times. His contribution to Behind the Book has been invaluable.

Looking for volunteer opportunities?

Behind the Book is seeking volunteers to design and format new student books!

Each book takes about 15 hours of time for a designer, spread over two or three weeks. We’re nearing the end of the school year, so in order to leave sufficient time for printing we are looking for someone to start right away.

This opportunity is perfect for someone who has a passion for education and literacy, but also an eye for design and skill with computers. While the volunteer can work from home, it is preferable that he/she live in or very near New York City.

The volunteer will need to be proficient in InDesign. Samples of past work are a plus.

You can check out examples of our student books here.

Volunteers will also be invited to attend the Book Celebration Party for the class whose book they design.  You can read more about past parties here.

Contact if you are interested in this position. Preference will be given to candidates who can show examples of past design work.

Thank you to Caring Hands!

Our annual newsletter has just arrived from the printer, and it looks fabulous!

We would first like to take a moment to thank Caring Hands – an initiative of healthcare advertising agency Harrison and Star LLC – for their incredibly generosity; for the third year running they have sponsored the printing of the newsletter and we are so grateful for their continued support. Thank you Caring Hands!

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