Today has been Martin Luther King Jr Day. It’s the first one I’ve experienced, since it’s not really a thing in the UK. And I’ll be honest, at first I was just thrilled at the prospect of a day off work. But then after spending a day teaching my kids about the great man’s legacy, my approach to this day changed. Learning about MLK and other important historical figures has always been a favorite thing of mine to do in the classroom. As much as I want my kids to learn how to read and how to write and all the other necessary stuff, I want them to learn how to be a good citizen of the world – I want them to know that you can get so far knowing how to write a non-chronological report, but you’ll get even further knowing how to be kind and supportive of people in need.
Friday at school was a day to reflect on who Martin Luther King Jnr was, what he did, and why we still remember him every year. I have what teachers tend to call an ‘interesting’ class. I love them, absolutely, but my days are often hard work. They are a chatty bunch, and I have a fair few ‘characters’. It’s fair to say that some days if I have tears in my eyes, they’re not always happy tears. Somedays I am just waiting for the final bell to ring. That’s the harsh truth of teaching – it isn’t all lightbulb moments. In fact, it’s more grit-your-teeth-and-just-make-it-to-four-o’clock moments, with the odd lightbulb moment thrown in (which, let’s face it, makes those lightbulb moments so fantastically fantastic 🙂 ). But Friday… Friday was wonderful.
Our main MLK lesson was rooted in our ongoing work focussing on written comprehension of texts. If it sounds tedious, that’s because it sometimes is. But another harsh reality of teaching is that kids have to pass tests, and we have to teach them with that in mind. I love writing, but it is something my kids sometimes struggle with, even though they are learning now how great it can be. They are good readers, they are able to verbalize their comprehension, but ask them to write it out and you can
almost hear the sighs. So that’s what we’re focussing on right now, in every fun and exciting way I can think of. On Friday, we read a news article about MLK. We talked about him, we linked the work to our Social Studies work around primary sources, and we worked as a class team to think of adjectives to describe his character. Our final task was a written one; students had to write a response to the question, ‘Why do you think we still remember Martin Luther King Jnr today?’
Let me tell you, I almost cried happy tears. My kids worked amazingly. They were focussed on their task and they did it well. One student brought me her work and I was so proud I had to stop myself from crying. But I wasn’t proud because she had used adjectives and adverbs (which she had), or because she had capitalized the start of her sentences (which she had), or because she had used evidence from the text and restated the question in her answer (which she had). I was proud because of what she wrote: she had understood MLK’s intentions, she had appreciated that the diversity of our school is due, in part, to his great work. She had demonstrated character.
I was reminded by my students on Friday of a quote from Martin Luther King Jnr himself, a quote I used when writing an essay years back about my own philosophy of education:
Intelligence plus character: that is the goal of true education.
Sometimes that goal gets forgotten in our drive to get kids to pass exams, to make schools climb higher in league tables, or to pass teacher evaluations with ‘Outstanding’. We have so much, as teachers, to remember every day: Is the ‘I Can’ displayed? Is it referenced to the National Curriculum or Common Core or equivalent document? Is the work differentiated enough? Are all of my kids engaged all of the time? Is my challenging kid engaged? Is my timetable visual? Have I asked enough assessment questions during carpet time? Have I used meaningful vocabulary strategies? Does my lesson plan address the school improvement plan? Have I included assessment for learning? Are my kids making adequate progress? Have my kids gone up a level? Is my marking up to date? Did I email that parent back? Am I using technology in a creative way? Have I remembered the points of the several IEPs in my classroom? Am I a good teacher?
All we do, as teachers, is ask questions, often of kids, more often of ourselves. But if I’m being honest, the question I probably don’t ask enough is this: Are my kids developing character? It’s not that I don’t ask it, it’s more that it’s not the first thing I ask, and maybe it should be. It’s hard, because there’s no test for it. All too often, the success of a student, and consequently of their teacher, is measured in test results or progress gained or levels reached. But those things don’t measure character. They don’t account for how much the child has become more mature or responsible or respectful; they don’t measure their uniqueness. They don’t give a picture of the new ways the student has learned to solve problems, to set goals and dream dreams for themselves.
I tell my kids this: I’m here to help you be the best you you can be. And this: We’re a team, so let’s encourage each other. Then this: It’s okay to make mistakes, they give us a second chance to do our best. And this: I love what is unique about each one of us, and I hope you can love what is unique about all of us too. But do I tell myself the same things often enough?
Today, on MLK Day, I went out for a walk. My roommate and I went to a park near where we live and we walked three miles by the lakeside, through forest and around a historic site. At times, we could hear the noise of the road. At other times, we could only hear the noise of birds and our own thoughts. I thought about Martin Luther King. I thought about his words. I thought about his view of education. And I thought about my students. This is the conclusion I came to: Intelligence plus character – that is the goal of true education.