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August 10, 2016
It’s a brisk January morning in Harlem, and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is officially a “hot topic” in Ms. Nolan’s first grade class. I haven’t had a second cup of coffee yet, but the class of 21 students* are (bless them) bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, ready to talk about the man of the hour. Lucky, since I have a copy of Martin’s Big Words by Doreen Rappaport propped on my left knee.
Martin Luther King Jr. was born January 15, 1929, in Atlanta, Georgia, and his birthday is now a national holiday, which is celebrated on the third Monday of each New Year. Dr. King would have been 85 years old this year; a grandfather figure to my generation, an ancient to Ms. Nolan’s first graders. Descending from a long line of ministers, his path appeared to be set early, but to teach his life we must reflect upon his choices. Dr. King was revered as the foremost leader of the civil rights movement and he championed the end of racial segregation, first in the South, and later all over the world. Dr. King chose to overcome prejudice and violence with nonviolent actions, and used his mind, faith, and courage as his strongest weapons against oppressive laws.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. accomplished truly amazing feats. As for his legacy, the question becomes: How do we remember Dr. King? Or, digging deeper: How do we teach his lessons of equality and fair treatment? After reading aloud I ask Ms. Nolan’s students, “What do you like about Martin’s Big Words?”
“I like all the drawings, and the pictures, and the big words,” says one little girl, her face haloed by beautiful little braids as she points at the gorgeous collage art. I push for more information and ask, “What is your favorite big word?” I’m expecting “love” or “peace,” which are repeated often in the book, but I’m surprised when she recites near verbatim the following passage from the book:
I have a dream that one day in Alabama little black boys and black girls will join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.
Then she looks around the room at her classmates and smiles. Dear Reader, I’m in Harlem. I’m in a multicultural classroom. Martin’s big words, indeed.
But this is it, isn’t it? This is what we are trying to do. We are listening to the voice of what will be history and they are telling us what they know.
This year, on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, I will be reflecting on Dr. King’s many big, beautiful words and those of Ms. Nolan’s first graders.
Listen, we wouldn’t be Scholastic Reading Club if we didn’t have more resources than you could shake a stick at. Look no further: Martin’s Big Words can be found as the first book in the First Graders and Second Graders catalogs, and a fabulous resource page, which shows books (suggested by grade), a mini-biography, activities, and vocabulary can be found here.
*In case you were wondering, I was able to visit this classroom through Scholastic Reads, a truly awesome volunteer program that enables Scholastic employees to volunteer as readers in first grade classrooms in NYC public schools. It’s a fun and valuable use of your time. And, let me tell you, it’s absolutely adorable. On my first visit they called me “Miss Connie” and on my second visit we discussed New Year’s resolutions. While the adults like myself blathered on about eating healthier one precious child decided she would “be nicer to her little brother.” Aw. If you are a Scholastic Inc. employee and you are reading this article I politely suggest you get on the ball and ask around about this program for next season.”
Author Bio: Concetta Gleason is the editorial assistant/admin coordinator for Club Leo.
January 18, 2016