A Project for Martin Luther King Day

activitiesYes, I know Martin Luther King Day was last week. I’m super bummed I didn’t think to post this then, because it’s one of the things I’m proudest of in my teaching career.

Some years ago I was a teacher of 2-and-3-year-olds at Pacific Primary in San Francisco, a truly amazing preschool where Martin Luther King Day is perhaps the biggest holiday of the year, culminating in a parade around the neighborhood with hundreds of families. It’s pretty great. Anyway, leading up to the holiday, my co-teachers, Saeda and Brandi, and I were trying to figure out the best way to talk about Dr. King and his ideas with kids that were so young. With such young children, I’ve found, you want to distill the narrative down to its essential parts, and decide what you really want the children to get out of the story. We decided that, for our purposes, we would talk about Dr. King as a man who wanted everyone to share with each other, to help each other, and to be fair to each other. We picked those particular aspects of Dr. King’s message because we thought they would resonate most strongly with the children—these are concepts they were already familiar with, and knew first hand both why they were important and how hard they are to achieve sometimes.

“So how,” we wondered, “do we use this occasion of Dr. King’s birthday to help the children find ways to actually BECOME more fair, more sharing, more helpful?” We realized, the more we talked about it, that the children already WERE those things—at least, some of the time. Sharing and helping and fairness went on all the time in our classroom, as well as their opposites. So we decided to best thing to do would be to create a piece of documentation that would show the children these qualities in themselves.

We took the most prominent wall of the classroom and divided it into three sections, and put big signs at the top that said “Penguins Sharing,” “Penguins Helping,” and “Penguins Being Fair.” (We were, as you might have guessed, the Penguin Classroom.) We kept the digital camera on hand at all times for a couple of weeks, and any time we caught someone in the act of one of these things, we snapped a photo. We would print out the photo IMMEDIATELY—full color, 8½ by 11 (we had a really good, really fast printer in the lobby)—and write a short caption to describe what happened. “Tommy shared the toy bears with Dianna.” “Julia spilled the sand, and Ariel got a broom to help clean up.” “At story time, the Penguins in the front sat on their bottoms, so that the Penguins in the back could see too.” We’d show the children in question right away, and they’d help us put it up on the wall. Then at circle time we’d show all the children the new ways their classmates had shared and helped and been fair.

It was like magic. After about three days of this, the kids were coming up to us to tell us what to take photos of. “Teacher Jarrod! Come take a picture! The kids are all waiting in line so everyone can have a turn on the rocking horse! They’re being fair, just like Dr. King said!” As the kids started to look for these behaviors in each other, they started seeing themselves that way. And the more they saw themselves that way, the more they behaved that way. It took some doing to get certain children on the wall—spending an hour stalking them, looking for ANYTHING that could REMOTELY be described as sharing—but once they saw themselves up there once, it was like a switch flipped in their heads. “Huh, look at that!” they seemed to say. “Apparently I’m someone who helps other kids. Guess I better go help someone then.” Self-perception is a powerful force.

It was powerful for family-members too, who visibly kvelled to see their children on the wall—an experience that took the ideas we were talking about in class out of the classroom and into their homes.

I’ve used variations on this idea since then. I taught for a few years at a Jewish preschool, where one year I had a mitzvah tree (“mitvah” is a Hebrew word commonly used to mean “good deed”) and another year I had a mensch tree (“mensch” is a Yiddish word meaning, roughly, “someone who does the right thing”). These were themes we chose when we saw behaviors starting to come out in the children that we wanted to reinforce. It works like a dream.

Pro Tip: The impact of this kind of documentation increases exponentially the faster you can get the photos up. With 2’s and 3’s, a 24 time delay makes it almost not worth it—they hardly remember what happened yesterday! Same-day posting is good. If you’ve got a printer available that you can stick a memory card in and print a photo right then, that’s best. (Or if you’ve somehow managed to hang on to your old Polaroid camera…) This is one of the only kinds of documentation where I will EVER interrupt what children are doing to take a photo. Usually I want kids to not even notice the camera; otherwise, they start performing for it and I can’t observe genuine behavior. But this activity is about changing children’s self-perception, so I’m willing to say, “Oh, I noticed how you were helping your friend! Let me take a picture of you doing it! Okay, come with me quick so we can print it out!” It’s a rare exception to my usual documentation modus-operandi.

* * *

Did you do something good with kids for MLK Day? Tell us in the comments!

And if you’re a teacher looking for more tips on documentation techniques, I do teacher trainings and workshops on specifically that—and I’ll be leading a workshop on documentation at DVAEYC’s annual conference in April.

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