It’s all #kinderchat‘s fault.
I didn’t teach about Dr. King until the first year of #kinderchat, which was also the first year I started tweeting with my class. I don’t know why, exactly. I knew who Dr. King was. The text of “I have a dream” gave me tears and goosebumps, and had since the first time I read it. When Obama was elected, I blogged (on my now-defunct personal blog) about the road that led from one African-American little girl braving death threats to go to kindergarten at a “white” school, to 2 African American little girls getting to know their new home – the White House. (A house built on the backs of slaves. Let’s talk about goosebumps for a minute, right?)
And then #kinderchat happened. And my class started tweeting with kids all over the world. And a #kinderchat friend (probably @mattbgomez, but maybe @havalah) shared the link to Martin’s Big Words…. And I thought: “Huh. If they’re teaching five-year-olds this stuff, I can, too.” Martin’s Big Words helped give me THE WORDS I needed to teach them. And so, I taught my class of highly privileged, relatively sheltered, largely caucasian, Canadian kindergarten students about Dr. King. They talked about their learning with twitter friends all over the world. They were so PROUD to know about something so important, it brought tears to my eyes.
I have taught about him ever since.
This year, a parent asked me (kindly, respectfully, appropriately) about my reasons for teaching such a clearly American topic to my Canadian kids. I stumbled at first… “It’s not really a HISTORY lesson… It’s more about the underlying themes…”
And then, I got my footing: “It’s powerful for kids to learn about a hero who didn’t fight with fists or guns. Whose “power” was words.”
The parent got it: “A superhero with WORD power!” (My class this year is ALL ABOUT superheroes.)
When you think about it, everything a kindergarten student is learning is about WORDS: reading, writing, getting along with other people. All require WORDS. I’m not sure they always believe us when we talk about how IMPORTANT words are: to read them, write them, sound them out, USE them when they are angry. When you’re five, fists seem a whole lot easier than all these mysterious WORDS. But… Dr. King’s story is about how WORDS can change the world.
The year that Billy was in my class, a phrase emerged from our class discussion about Dr. King: “The strongest part of Martin’s body was his words.” (I love that the kids are on a first-name basis with Dr. King. This charms me every year.) Billy was the kind of child who rarely used words. He used his fists, his feet, his fingers, knees, elbows, shoulders, for everything from expressing emotions to (sadly ineffective) attempts at connecting with others. Billy had the kind of mind that seems bottomless, where, once you slipped an idea past the still surface of his face, you never knew where, or when, or whether, that idea would make contact with anything solid.
The strongest part of Martin’s body was his words.
Somehow, Billy grabbed on to that phrase. He chewed on it like bubblegum, all day. When the kids wrote in their journals about Dr. King, that was the caption he chose for his picture. He initiated conversation about it at lunch with his friends. He muttered it to himself while he played with cars. Later, while I sat with him on a time-out (likely for a situation in which he had FAILED to use words), he repeated it. The strongest part of Martin’s body was his words.
The next day, Billy’s mom reported that he had insisted on watching the Martin’s Big Words video with her that evening. He had made the whole family talk about Civil Rights at dinner. He wanted to go to the library and get more books about Martin. Remember, this is a five year old. A five year old with a face that usually barely registered a flicker of interest or emotion.
I wish I could say that Billy stopped hitting after that, that Dr. King cured him. That would make a great story, wouldn’t it? But that is not the truth of things. There were many more rough patches that year. Hitting. Pushing. Rock-throwing. Pinches so sharp and sneaky that other children cried without any clue what had just happened to them.
But the phrase remained.
Months later, walking with Billy to get the milk for lunchtime. “Mme? The strongest part of Martin’s body was his words.” No greater context. This was the way with Billy.
“Yes, Billy. That is what made Martin a hero. He helped make things better without fists or guns. He used words – words of love – to change things he thought were wrong.”
“Yep. And the strongest part of his body was his words.”
And then, yesterday morning, in my classroom doorway: Billy’s mom.
“I know what day it is, and what you’ll be teaching. These are for you.”
In her hands, 2 heart-breakingly beautiful, brand-new picture books, about Dr. King and the Civil Rights movement.
“Billy still talks about this lesson. Thank you.”
And so, yes, I teach Canadian kindergartners about Dr. King. Because we never know which words will be the ones that break the surface, that reach the bottom, that make contact with something buried so deep you weren’t even sure it was actually there.
Because the strongest part of my body is my words.