Despite Lessons on King, Some Unaware of His Dream

By Valerie Strauss
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, January 15, 2007

In a recent survey of college students on U.S. civic literacy, more than 81 percent knew that the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was expressing hope for "racial justice and brotherhood" in his historic "I Have a Dream" speech.

That's the good news.

Most of the rest surveyed thought King was advocating the abolition of slavery.

The findings indicate that years of efforts by primary and secondary schools to steep young people in the basics of the civil rights leader's life and activities have resulted in a mixed bag. Most college students know who he is -- even if they're not quite clear on what he worked to achieve.

Students and teachers say today's federal holiday marking King's birthday is the one that receives the most attention in schools, in part because the events surrounding the man it commemorates are the most recent.

"I think if there is one holiday on the calendar that is really reflective and thoughtful and has historical content, it is the King holiday," said Cynthia Mosteller, a history teacher at Deal Junior High School in the District. "It is a topic about which literally every student knows something."

How long students will continue to learn it, however, is open to question, students and educators say.

The recent survey of college students, conducted by the University of Connecticut's Department of Public Policy for the nonprofit Intercollegiate Studies Institute, suggests that schools are not doing as much as they could to go beyond a cursory history lesson. More than 14,000 college freshmen and seniors at 50 colleges and universities earned an average score of 53.2 percent in the survey.

Many of the 10 federal holidays have become little more than days off school or work, even if they are dedicated to significant Americans, such as Abraham Lincoln and George Washington. Many people have no idea what Labor Day commemorates, educators say.

"Honestly, I never knew what Veterans Day was until last year," said Taneisha Rodney, 14, a ninth-grader at William E. Doar Jr. Public Charter School for the Performing Arts in Northeast Washington.

In many schools across the country, teachers say social studies has taken a back seat under the federal No Child Left Behind law, which stresses math and reading. Squeezing history into the curriculum can be difficult, educators say, and taking time out of a scheduled lesson to use a federal holiday -- even King's -- as a teaching moment can be tough.

"It depends on the teacher and how much they want to deviate from what they are doing," said Adam Zemel, 17, a senior at Yorktown High School in Arlington.

Mark J. Stout, a social studies curriculum coordinator for Howard County schools, said in an e-mail: "We really have a fairly tight and regimented curriculum, so most teachers will either try to integrate holidays into their regular instruction (if there is a connection), or spend a few moments in the beginning of the class talking to the students about the event or person being commemorated. Most likely, they do the latter, but there is no expectation or requirement."

King and the civil rights movement are part of the curriculum in many school systems, although lessons do not always coordinate with the holiday. This is true especially in higher grades where broad issues in U.S. history, such as social justice, are addressed in depth.

But for elementary school teachers, federal holidays sometimes are the only chance to teach students about subjects for which they otherwise have little time.

"One of the raps on elementary social studies is that it is all about heroes and holidays, and with standardized testing, it often becomes that," said Andrea S. Libresco, an education professor at Hofstra University in New York who teaches prospective teachers how to use the holidays as teaching opportunities. "People tend to concentrate on English and math."

A danger, educators say, is that lessons about King can become repetitive from year to year, especially when using the same theatrical performances and movies. As a consequence, many students know about King's 1963 "I Have a Dream" speech but not about his seminal "Letter From Birmingham Jail," also written in 1963.

That is why each year Deal Junior High rotates the focus of its assembly , Mosteller said.

Rachel Gillette, 17, a senior at E.C. Glass High School in Lynchburg, Va., said that although the holiday is not a focus in her school, the importance of the day remains strong.

"Despite the lack of class time spent on this day, Martin Luther King Day means much more than Lincoln or Washington's Birthday," Gillette said in an e-mail. "There are local breakfasts in his honor, and the street that he marched down has now been named Martin Luther King Boulevard. Everyone I know knows exactly who he is and what he accomplished."

But some students readily acknowledge that the holiday amounts to little more than a day off school. Some say they fear that King's message of nonviolence is losing relevance in today's violent world.

"It's fading away a little bit, but if we can keep the true value of Martin Luther King in schools, it may come back," said Shanay Miles, 14, a ninth-grader at Doar.

To honor King's legacy, a group of students from Shanay's school will spend today doing community service -- not lounging at home. They will be going to a Boys & Girls Club to help clean, do inventory and other tasks, Doar teacher Terrence Carter said, adding that giving back to the community is the best way to keep King's spirit alive.

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