Martin Luther King in the local classroom

Rush City, North Branch teachers share how they bring students closer to Martin Luther King Jr. and his message

It’s a federal holiday that celebrates the life and achievements of one of the most influential American civil rights leaders in history.

And while students had the day off in observance of this annual holiday, Martin Luther King Jr. is not forgotten in local classrooms where his “I Have A Dream” speech and campaign for racial equality are kept alive through video presentations and thought-provoking discussions.

Erika Matzke, a social studies teacher at Rush City High School, challenges her students to think about and put into perspective the impact that such historic figures as King has had on people and society in general.

Matzke said she organized an assignment on King’s famous speech and found some interesting responses from students on their own dreams in the context of  equality and discrimination. One student dreamed of a world without bullying, for instance, an issue many young people can relate to.

“They understand these are real world problems,” said Matzke, noting students will weigh in on treating people fairly.

Martin Luther King Jr. helped foster change to make the world a better place, she added.

In his social studies class at RCHS, Mike Vaughan assigned his students to study a figure whose notable place in history came before and after Martin Luther King Jr. They first compared Frederick Douglass (1818-1895) and then President Barack Obama (1961-present) to King (1929-1968).

Vaughan also found an old school film, complete with reels, of King’s “I Have A Dream” speech to show his students.

“Where would we be today if we didn’t have figures like Martin Luther King Jr.?” said Matzke, reciting a question she will ask her students. “We’re talking about the message. We’re such a complex, diverse society. When we’re trying to live harmoniously, there’s going to be times people are treated unfairly, but what are you going to do for a solution?”

She wants her students to think; she wants them prepared to act, too, to make a difference.

“I love hearing back from the kids,” she said. “I want them to know the problem, to recognize it and don’t become it, and become part of a solution. I want to prepare kids for the real world. It’s a partnership with teachers and parents at home fostering their growth,” she continued.

Yet with adversity can come positives, and that’s part of the message between teacher and student, as well.

“Struggles are worth it in the end,” Vaughan said.

“It builds character,” Matzke added.

At North Branch Area Middle School, teacher Pam Newbauer said seventh-graders are currently studying the institution of slavery in American history and its involvement in bringing the country to the Civil War.

And like her colleagues to the north, she has similar lessons in mind on Martin Luther King Jr.

“To commemorate Dr. King,” she said, “this year we will be comparing the social conditions that existed 100 years before his Dream speech, what had developed since that time to bring America to the Civil Rights Movement, and then bring it forward to have the kids identify what dreams they have for their lives and our country and our world today.

“I’m hopeful that making it personal for the kids will help make it more meaningful. Kids have an extraordinary sense of justice and right versus wrong when they can understand the effects it has on them and the people they care about,” Newbauer added.


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