Making Martin Luther King Jr.’s message relevant for today’s students

John Stroud
Glenwood Springs Post Independent
Riverview students Cole Sherick, Oliver Patrick and Stefan Wroblewski work to film the morning announcements, which are aired in the classrooms every morning. The daily announcements include an inspirational quote from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
Chelsea Self/Glenwood Springs Post Independent

Keeping the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s messages of equality, pride in oneself and respect for others relevant for 21st century students isn’t as difficult as it might seem five decades removed.

In fact, it’s a message that resonates as loud in many corners today, on the anniversary of the civil rights leader’s birth, as it did then, say area educators charged with teaching about MLK and his importance in U.S. history.

As the 50th anniversary of King’s assassination approaches this April, “there’s still a lot of work to be done,” some Glenwood Springs Middle School students observed Friday as they took time during their weekly house meeting to talk about MLK’s legacy.

“Kids just naturally know even today why it’s such a relevant message,” GSMS Principal Joel Hathaway said after the discussion. “There are so many mixed messages coming from the media and our national dialogue right now, where people can’t communicate and get along.

“I think the kids see Dr. King’s message as a refreshing return to truth, honestly,” he said. “When people are talking about fake news this and that, it’s nice to hear something that is so unequivocally true today and always.”

It’s more than a day off from school, Hathaway reminded the students.

“It’s important to make a big deal out of it, to honor it, and to celebrate it,” he said.

At the new Riverview School, which includes students from pre-kindergarten through eighth grade, teacher Matt Stanley’s media class has spent the last week video-recording announcements that included quotes from MLK and his wife, Coretta Scott King, to be played in each classroom at the start of the school day.

“We’ve tried to get all of the ages involved, and have the middle schoolers be a model for the little kids, and to speak to the importance of the holiday,” Stanley said. “It’s also important to ask the students what injustices they see today, and how that message is brought alive in their own lives.”

Riverview humanities teachers Paige Hahn and Paul Dudley also took time in their classes recently to talk about King’s message in relation to the dual-language school’s mission and its celebration of diversity.

“Riverview’s mission includes a statement about encouraging students to become ‘multicultural agents of change’ within the community,” Hahn said. “Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s message is extremely relevant today as a reminder to kids that change is possible, as encouragement to take a stand when necessary, and as an opportunity to continue to grow.”

That includes “looking beyond outward appearance, which often assumes a strong role in middle school, and, instead shifting focus and value onto a person’s character,” she said.

During the school’s Crew classes, students have spent time reading MLK quotes, watching his landmark “I Have a Dream” speech, and learning about his life and times.

Guiding the Friday conversation at GSMS was a question posed by King in one of his many sermons: “Life’s most persistent and urgent question is, ‘What are you doing for others?'”

Principal Hathaway shared his own personal experience serving a school in Asheville, North Carolina, before coming to Glenwood Springs. His school there was made up of about a third African American students, a third Spanish speaking, and a third white.

“We had great kids in every part of that demographic, but it did make it hard at times to get along and understand each other … and there were issues we had to get through in order for everybody to feel safe,” he shared with the Glenwood students.

“What I love about this school is that, sure, there are times when we get into arguments and people disagree, but in general we work really hard at being a crew,” Hathaway said. “Everybody belongs, and that’s a huge value for your teachers, and for me, and for your parents, and for this school.”

Students also had an opportunity to view a video excerpt from an Oct. 26, 1967, address King gave to students at Barrett Junior High School in Philadelphia.

Hathaway stumbled across the grainy, black-and-white video on YouTube, which had just been dug up only a couple of years ago by one of the students who was in the audience at the time and happened to film the occasion.

It’s relevance, he noted, is that King was speaking to a group of students who were the same age as today’s middle school students. “It’s you, he was talking to you,” Hathaway related.

In the address, King talks about setting a blueprint for their young lives, saying, “what you decide now at this age may well determine which way your life shall go …

“A building is not well erected without a good, sound and solid blueprint,” King adds. “Each of you is in the process of building the structure of your lives. The question is whether you have a proper, solid and sound blueprint.”

King then offered that each of their blueprints should include two things:

One, “A deep belief in your own dignity, your own worth, and your own ‘somebodyness.’ Don’t allow anybody to make you feel that you are nobody. Always feel that you count … and always feel that your life has ultimate significance.”

Second, “You must have as a basic principle the determination to achieve excellence in your various fields of endeavor.”

In her crew classes at GSMS, sixth grade humanities teacher Beth Ullom said students were reminded of the importance of King’s message, “and why we still celebrate and take a day off to acknowledge his accomplishments.”

And, Ullom added, “that we still have work to do.”


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