Students love to learn about Martin Luther King, Jr., but his achievements seem inaccessible to them. For kids, Dr. King was a fully-formed civil rights leader who always knew just what to do.
You can inspire children by teaching them about Dr. King’s school days. Then they will understand that he had to face obstacles, study, and learn. Kids feel so powerless sometimes—it’s good to show them that famous people were once children, and that everyone was a beginner at some point.
In honor of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day, you may want to show the “I Have a Dream” speech to your students. I have found that this speech is captivating for elementary school students, but it is absolutely necessary for you to teach them about the speech before they listen.
I’d like to share my teaching notes (pdf) on MLK’s “I Have a Dream” speech with you and your students. I hope it helps you teach the historical context, allusions, and rhetorical techniques. If you copy my teaching notes for your students, I suggest you read the speech with them and explain the context. Then, listening to Dr. King give the speech will be an unforgettable experience for your students.
Why are teaching notes so important? The “I Have a Dream” speech is rich in allusions: historical, biblical, and even financial. Your students will appreciate these allusions—if they know about them.
Take the first few paragraphs: will your students understand the significance of the speech’s setting, the Lincoln Memorial, and the phrase “a great American, in whose symbolic shadow we stand today” if you don’t explain these details? Will your students understand how the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution compare to a promissory note? My teaching notes explain these details clearly.
What about the famous part of the speech, at the end? For example, knowledge of geography is essential to understanding the “let freedom ring” section. Dr. King begins it with “let freedom ring…” [in famous landmarks of northern and western states]… “But not only that. Let freedom ring…” in famous landmarks in the southern states.] The sequence will be more memorable for your students if they understand this distinction. Without teaching notes, your students might miss much of the meaning.
I recommend you buy the Martin Luther King Jr. – I Have a Dream speech on DVD rather than listen to the speech through the Internet. This DVD introduces the speech with real footage of events leading up to it. You can also watch a featurette about the March on Washington on August 28, 1963. Your students will enjoy seeing the marchers and will be impressed with how well-dressed the marchers are. (Every year, this is the first thing my students notice.)
“…December 7th, 1941—a date which will live in infamy—the United States of America was suddenly and deliberately attacked by naval and air forces of the Empire of Japan.”
If your class is like mine, you will find that students know next to nothing about this tragic and important event.
I have taught the following lessons to both third and fifth graders. Students are eager to learn about the bombing of Pearl Harbor, and I never have any trouble keeping their attention.
First, I describe the event to students, and place it in the context of World War II.
Here is a good reading comprehension worksheet with a short passage about Pearl Harbor. This passage gives American embargoes on Japan as the reason for the attack. I think that children should know that destroying the Pacific Fleet was another Japanese goal for the attack.
I read President Roosevelt’s famous speech and explain it to the students. I give students a copy of the speech. You can print the speech and listen to it at AmericanRhetoric.com Students are fascinated to hear this address from so long ago. They listen much better if they can read along.
After students understand what happened, I tie the lesson into writing by showing a first draft of FDR’s speech, from the National Archives. It’s interesting to see how he developed the most famous phrases.
InstructorWeb has a nice packet about the attack on Pearl Harbor. It’s appropriate for students in 5th grade and up. The packet features a passage to read, a chart, and questions: multiple choice, short answer, matching, and essay.
Mouse on the Mayflower is a time-honored Thanksgiving movie. Your class will enjoy the cartoon story told from a mouse’s point of view.
For older students, you can use this FREE comprehension worksheet to increase the educational value a little. The questions are easily completed by a fifth-grader who pays attention. This worksheet is perfect for grades 4-6. In my experience, third graders just stress out and interrupt each other asking for the answers because they missed them.
FREE online debate game: The Icivics Cast Your Vote game lets kids run the debate! Two fictitious debate important (but not too controversial) issues. Students choose which question to ask and then decide which candidate they agree with. At the end, they get to vote. A printout shows how often they agreed with that candidate and how strongly. Students will probably find that no one candidate reflects all their views; voters have to make a judgment call on what’s important to them.
Your judgment call: will you make your students write an essay about their debate game? Why or why not?
Learn about voting rights: who got the vote and when? What are barriers to voting? This Icivics lesson packet gives you everything you need to teach the topic of voting rights at the elementary level.
The classic site for teaching elections and government: Ben’s Guide to Government: this extensive site gives you materials to teach government to students in grades K-12. For branches of government to the Electoral College, all the information you need is here.
Classic election night homework: give students this Electoral College map coloring page that they can fill out as they watch the election returns. You can also do this the next day at school.
Teacher Tip: the day after a presidential election can be a rough one in the classroom. Some students internalize their parents’ politics. If their candidate didn’t win, kids can be very depressed or angry. Likewise, students whose candidate did win can be insufferably smug. You can talk with students about how after the election, the president represents everyone. Then you might want to move on to a new subject, fun art activity, learning game—anything but elections and government!
This year, try a New Orleans theme for your Halloween/Fall Festival party. You can work in geography, history, culture, and Halloween fun.
I did this last year and I can tell you that both the kids and parents just loved it. It was a nice modification of traditional Halloween-at-school activities. Parents appreciated the educational angle and they learned something, too.
I grabbed everyone’s attention by showing them that the Disney Haunted Mansion is in New Orleans Square. I told them that the Disney Haunted Mansion movie is set in New Orleans, too.
Once I had everyone’s attention, I showed them a New Orleans PowerPoint I created. You can click to download & share it, too (large file: 3+ MB). It shows pictures of New Orleans to help get everyone in the mood. I downloaded the Disney “Grim Grinning Ghosts” Haunted Mansion song along with some classic New Orleans jazz to play while we looked at the pictures.
Everyone loved learning about the New Orleans jazz funeral. I told the children how it evolved from African funeral customs. A New Orleans jazz band plays a sad song or dirge on the way to the cemetery, and happy tunes for the procession out. Click here to learn more about the New Orleans jazz funeral. Here is a sample:
Eileen Southern in The Music of Black Americans: A History wrote, “On the way to the cemetery it was customary to play very slowly and mournfully a dirge, or an ‘old Negro spiritual’ such as ‘Nearer My God to Thee,’ but on the return from the cemetery, the band would strike up a rousing, ‘When the Saints Go Marching In,’ or a ragtime song such as ‘Didn’t He Ramble.’ Sidney Bechet, the renowned New Orleans jazzman, after observing the celebrations of the jazz funeral, stated, “Music here is as much a part of death as it is of life.”
Because I teach third grade, I don’t explain how the New Orleans above-ground cemeteries are necessary so that the bodies don’t wash out on the streets during floods. This would be very interesting to older students, though. For third graders, I show pictures of the beautiful New Orleans cemeteries, famous cultural landmarks of the city.
Make sure to teach the kids about New Orleans food, like jambalaya and po’boys. Explain that po’boy sandwiches can be any simple filling in bread, but that most people think of a shrimp po’boy. My mom said that when she lived near New Orleans, red beans and rice was everybody’s Monday dinner because Monday was laundry day and the mother was too busy to cook something difficult. Practical details like that help history and culture come alive for students.
Parents and students alike are very interested in my story about the New Orleans streetcars. I explained that if you ride the car to the end of the line, the driver will have everybody stand up so he can reverse the seat backs. In that way, you always ride facing forward. Click here to see the concept. The picture is part of my New Orleans PowerPoint presentation.
For a literacy connection, I recommend reading the New Orleans Magic Tree House book A Good Night for Ghosts. Your students will enjoy learning about New Orleans and Louis Armstrong. The book touches very, very lightly on segregation. You can expand on that or wait for another learning opportunity, your choice. (If you like, teach your students that Ruby Bridges integrated William Frantz Elementary in New Orleans.) A Good Night for Ghosts shouldn’t be too scary for your class. It has a mild ghost scene that turns out not to be ghosts after all, but Louis’s friends.
I always imagine John Adams as the nerdy know-it-all of the Founding Fathers, the guy who was never quite cool*. Nothing illustrates this so well as his earnest prediction that July 2nd was gonna be a big day:
“The second day of July, 1776, will be the most memorable epoch in the history of America. I am apt to believe that it will be celebrated by succeeding generations as the great anniversary festival. It ought to be commemorated as the day of deliverance, by solemn acts of devotion to God Almighty. It ought to be solemnized with pomp and parade, with shows, games, sports, guns, bells, bonfires, and illuminations, from one end of this continent to the other, from this time forward forever more.”— July 3, 1776 letter to Abigail
Americans celebrate the date on the document, not the date the resolution was approved in a closed session of Congress. We all know that we’ll be partying on the Fourth. Let’s take the Second to do our homework and learn a little about the holiday.
Because the Census Bureau is all about the fun: peruse their Fun Facts about the Fourth of July. I liked their comparison of who will be celebrating in the USA: over 311 million now versus 2.5 million then. Also, did you know that more than 1 in 4 hot dogs consumed on the Fourth of July originated from Iowa?
That treasure trove of Internet research, Wikipedia, publishes a useful Fourth of July.
*My basis for this assumption: the “Sit Down, John!” number from the musical 1776 . This is such a fun movie. I get a kick out of watching Gwyneth’s mom as Martha Jefferson. There are powerful moments, too. The best is “Molasses to Rum to Slaves.” (Note: according to an Amazon review, this song is not in the director’s cut DVD.)
“The people of Texas are informed that in accordance with a Proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free. This involves an absolute equality of rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves, and the connection heretofore existing between them becomes that between employer and free laborer.”—Read by Major General Granger to the people of Texas, June 19, 1865.
Juneteenth is the oldest known celebration of the end of slavery in the United States. On this day in 1865, the Union soldiers, led by Major General Gordon Granger, landed at Galveston, Texas with the news that the war was over and the slaves were now free.
I wish this date fell during the school year, because it would be so meaningful for students. Still, we can learn and celebrate today, take the lessons with us back to school.
Teach your students all 100 questions and answers from the U.S. naturalization test. Nine quizzes with corresponding study guides make it easy to break the test into manageable chunks. I hope these quizzes help teachers, students, and candidates for naturalization.
Children who grow up in the U.S should know the civics, geography, and history concepts that we ask our naturalized citizens to learn. By studying the test, your students will gain an overview of what it means to be American. I hope t2hey will also gain respect for immigrants, who must learn all this information without the context that makes it much easier for U.S.-born people to understand.
The unit starts with the easiest lesson for American students, U.S. Geography and symbols. This lets the students score an easy win and knock out 12 of the 100 questions.
Six FREE cumulative quizzes make it easy to teach and learn US geography. Start with easy-to-identify states, then build up until students can label all of them.
I developed this system because I noticed that most students (in any grade) do not know basic U.S. geography. Rather than teaching geography by region, I decided to teach by ease of memorization. Level 1 features states that are easy to pick out on the map, usually because of location or shape. Easily mixed-up states are on higher levels, but students have no trouble learning them because they already know most of the states by then. The tests also ask students to learn bodies of water, neighboring countries, and the Great Lakes.
The tests are cumulative. For each level, new states are indicated by a large question mark and previously learned states by a smaller question mark.
For level 3, teach students two tricks:MIMAL is the name of the chef shown in profile on the map. The states are Minnesota, Iowa, Missouri, Arkansas, and Louisiana. Minnesota is the hat, Louisiana is the boot, and Missouri is the belly.
For the Great Lakes, teach students that Super Man Helps Every One. From left to right, the lakes are Superior, Michigan, Huron, Erie, and Ontario.
Copy the U.S. Geography Challenge page on the back of each map. One page covers the whole unit. For extra credit or a treat, students can fill in the states for upcoming lessons. The US Geography Challenge page gives postal codes for each state. I recommend students use those codes on the map. It’s easier than squishing in state names and a good way to learn the postal codes.
Teachers, here are FREE Leap Year worksheets written by a National Board Certified Teacher. I hope you and your students enjoy them!
Here is an enjoyable reading comprehension worksheet called “Fun with Leap Year and Leap Day.” The passage and questions are indeed fun. What other worksheet challenges you to figure out what Pope Paul III and Ja Rule have in common? (Answer: they were both born on Leap Day.)
You and your students will enjoy learning about Leap Year luck (or lack thereof), Leap Year marriage proposals in Ireland, and the quandary posed by a Leap Year birthday in The Pirates of Penzance. The questions are all opinion based—and in my opinion, you shouldn’t grade them! Give students credit for completion, then go home and kick back to enjoy the rest of Leap Day.
Next is my fun “Was it a Leap Year?” worksheet that lets students apply their knowledge of divisibility by 4. Hints for determining divisibility by 4 are at the bottom of the page. The worksheet teaches a special case: century years. Because a revolution around the sun does not quite take 365.25 days, only century years divisible by 400 are Leap Years. The worksheet gives a student-friendly explanation and challenges them to determine if a century year was or wasn’t a Leap Year. I also have provided an Answer Key as a separate download.
Teachers, here are FREE Leap Year worksheets written by a National Board Certified Teacher. I hope you and your students enjoy them!
The first one is a reading comprehension worksheet about Leap Year. It’s a good, basic introduction to the concept of Leap Year that is appropriate for third grade and up.
Next is a writing worksheet about how and why Julius Caesar created Leap Year and rearranged the calendar. To shake things up a little, this worksheet challenges students to write a newspaper article about the event. The article gives “notes” our fictitious reporter took at the press conference—in a handy who, what, where, when, why format.
Stay tuned for Free Leap Year Worksheets Part Two: Leap Year trivia reading comprehension and Leap Year math!
“Ballad of Birmingham” is a famous poem about the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama in 1963 in which four girls were killed. Of all the lessons I present in connection with the Civil Rights movement, this is the most emotional and memorable.
You can use materials from BalladofBirmingham.org to teach your students about the poem. You will learn the story of the bombing, the story of the poem, and the story of the song. I recommend that you read the poem with your students. The song should be a separate experience, but it is one worth sharing.
Here is a video with the song and news footage. I recommend that you view it yourself and decide if it is appropriate for your students.
You can also see a clip about the church bombing from the History Channel. This explains the context of the bombing in a powerful, visual and concise way. Again, view it yourself and decide if this is appropriate for your students.
**I discovered the poem “Ballad of Birmingham” as a child, when I won a Dr. Martin Luther King Day essay contest at the US Navy base in Naples, Italy. There was a ceremony in honor of Dr. King. I read my essay, but by far the most memorable part of the day was when my friend Keisha’s mom recited “Ballad of Birmingham.” She ended by singing “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot.” This powerful performance is one of my most cherished memories.
My essay compares Dr. King’s dream to the international community at the NATO base in Naples, Italy. Read my essayat the About the Author section of my CoreyGreen.com website.
Ballad of Birmingham by Dudley Randall
“Mother dear, may I go downtown
Instead of out to play,
And march the streets of Birmingham
In a Freedom March today?”
“No, baby, no, you may not go,
For the dogs are fierce and wild,
And clubs and hoses, guns and jails
Aren’t good for a little child.”
“But, mother, I won’t be alone.
Other children will go with me,
And march the streets of Birmingham
To make our country free.”
“No, baby, no, you may not go,
For I fear those guns will fire.
But you may go to church instead
And sing in the children’s choir.”
She has combed and brushed her night-dark hair,
And bathed rose petal sweet,
And drawn white gloves on her small brown hands,
And white shoes on her feet.
The mother smiled to know her child
Was in the sacred place,
But that smile was the last smile
To come upon her face.
For when she heard the explosion,
Her eyes grew wet and wild.
She raced through the streets of Birmingham
Calling for her child.
She clawed through bits of glass and brick,
Then lifted out a shoe.
“O, here’s the shoe my baby wore,
But, baby, where are you?”
“In Flanders fields the poppies blow between the crosses…”
Now we call it Veterans Day, but it used to be known as Armistice Day, marking the cessation of hostilities on the western front on “the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month.”
Veterans Day is the perfect time to share with your students the famous poem of World War I, “In Flanders Fields.” This haunting poem vividly captures the scene at the Second Battle of Ypres. It was written by Col. John McCrae, a Canadian physician treating soliders at the battle. He was particularly affected by the death of a young friend and former student, Lt. Alexis Helmer of Ottawa. Lt. Helmer was buried in the cemetery outside McCrae’s dressing station, and the doctor performed the funeral ceremony in the absence of the chaplain.
Col. McCrae wrote “In Flanders Fields” during one of his breaks. Legend has it that he rejected the poem, but that a fellow officer sent it to be considered for publication. The poem became hugely popular. Canadian professor and humanitarian Moina Michael composed a poem inspired by “In Flanders Fields” and vowed to always wear a red poppy as a symbol of remembrance of those who served in the war. After the war, she taught a class of disabled veterans and pursued the idea of selling silk poppies to raise funds to assist disabled veterans.
Note: to understand the poem, students need to know that poppies are opiates that cause people to sleep. Poppies, particularly blood-red poppies, have long been used as symbols of death and sleep. In Greek and Roman myths, poppies were used as offerings to the dead. I describe an image that’s easy for children to understand—the Wicked Witch of the West casting poppies in the fields as Dorothy et.al. approached the Wizard of Oz.