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Teaching Dr. King in the 21st Century

“[Students] are in reality standing up for the best in the American dream. . . . One day historians will record this student movement as one of the most significant epics of our heritage.” —from “The Time for Freedom Has Come”

In the fall of 2011, some of our staff at Beacon, Random House, and the literary representative for the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Estate brought together a blue-ribbon panel of educators, including teachers, librarians, and administrators to discuss how to better teach Dr. King in 21st century classrooms. The first question we asked was whether teachers wanted books, and their response surprised and gratified us. One by one, they responded with a unanimous yes. “Students respect books,” remarked one educator. Others lamented about the mass amounts of incorrect information and untrusted resources online. One teacher even brought in a mess of photocopied pages from various websites, frustrated that this was how she was forced to teach Dr. King’s work in her classes.

Members of the King Legacy Teachers Summit discussing ideas for bringing Dr. King to the classroom.
Members of the King Legacy Teachers Summit discussing ideas for bringing Dr. King to the classroom.
In response to this demand from educators looking for accessible book length collections of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s work, we undertook a major initiative called The King Legacy for Students. We hope it will provide schools with productive models and possibilities for teaching Dr. King and one of our nation’s most important eras—the civil rights movement. The first book in the series, A Time to Break Silence: The Essential Works of Martin Luther King, Jr., for Students includes writings and speeches carefully selected by teachers across a variety of disciplines. We asked Dr. Andrea McEvoy Spero, a teacher and curriculum developer at the Martin Luther King, Jr. Research and Education Institute at Stanford University, why this text would be valuable for teachers. “I find educators are eager and hungry to teach the inspiring words of Dr. King, but they are often unfamiliar with his works beyond ‘I Have a Dream,’” she said. “Once they’re exposed to his additional works, now available in this anthology, that deal directly and honestly with the interconnectedness of race, poverty, and violence, teaching Dr. King immediately becomes more relevant to the lives of their students today.”
Dr. Kimberly Parker and educator Rohini ... at the 2013 NCTE Conference in Boston
Dr. Kimberly Parker (left) and fellow member of Beacon’s teacher advisory board Rohini Parikh (right) celebrate the publication of the King Legacy for Students

Introduced by award-winning author Walter Dean Myers, the anthology features classic works like “Letter from Birmingham Jail” and “I Have a Dream” but also lesser-known works including “The Sword That Heals” and “What Is Your Life’s Blueprint?”—a speech that was not previously available anywhere in its entirety. Upon fact checking the anthology, we were excited to discover existing and unknown video footage of Dr. King speaking to junior high students in an auditorium in Philadelphia in 1967. The Philadelphia School District generously provided us with a copy of the video, and we are delighted to be able to present this powerful speech accurately in our anthology for the first time. Dr. Kimberley Parker, a Boston-based educator, expressed her enthusiasm to us about the speech. “One merely needs to read ‘What is Your Life’s Blueprint?’ with students, for example, to counter their questions about why history matters now. Being ourselves is, perhaps, the most difficult task any of us strives to do, but having a sense of ‘somebodiness’ is critical to resilience and success. When I used this essay with students in a summer program, students could not stop quoting lines from the speech, analyzing why Dr. King’s words resonated so powerfully with their own future plans.”

To support teachers in successful use of the text in their classrooms, we collaborated with the King Institute at Stanford University to create free online curriculum, aligned with the Common Core, and an interactive website for 21st century learning, where students can listen to and read an illustrated version of “I Have a Dream.” As Spero exlained, “the corresponding curriculum guide and website provides teachers and students with 21st century learning tools and innovative ways to explore the African American Freedom struggle in American history.” We’re also partnering with teachers and organizations—such as Facing History—to offer workshops and training. Parker says, “the care that Beacon Press extended to all parts of bringing A Time to Break Silence to publication is commendable. It involved educators—who were actually practicing in classrooms with real students from all types of schools—from the genesis of this project. These educators helped to make the final selections that appear in the anthology, making this, essentially, an educators’ endeavor.”

Listen to Dr. Kimberly Parker speak to educators at NCTE:



3305"In your life's blueprint should be a deep belief in your own dignity, your own worth, and your own somebodiness. Don't allow anybody to make you feel that you are nobody.…However young you are, you have a responsibility to seek to make your nation a better nation in which to live. You have a responsibility to seek to make life better for everybody. And so you must be involved in the struggle for freedom and justice." —from "What Is Your Life's Blueprint?"

A Time to Break Silence presents the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s most important writings and speeches-carefully selected by teachers across a variety of disciplines—in an accessible and user-friendly volume for students. Arranged thematically in six parts, the collection includes eighteen selections and is introduced by award-winning author Walter Dean Myers. Included are some of Dr. King's most well-known and frequently taught classic works, like "Letter from Birmingham Jail" and "I Have a Dream," as well as lesser-known pieces such as "The Sword that Heals" and "What Is Your Life's Blueprint?," which speak to issues young people face today.