Picture this. It’s a cartoon—an image of MLK and Mahatma Gandhi drawn in 1968 , featured in the now defunct Chicago Sun Times. Gandhi is sitting. MLK is leaning over in Gandhi’s direction, as Gandhi, hand extended, tells King: “The odd thing about assassins, Dr. King, is that they think they’ve killed you.”
Chilling, huh? You can see it for yourself on this link at http://asiasociety.org/files/gandhi-king.pdf (scroll down to the cartoon).
I was ten when Dr. Martin Luther King was shot. I hadn’t paid much attention to him. The riots around the country dashed my dream of going to Washington D.C. to celebrate my birthday that April. I was sorry that Dr. King was shot, but even sorrier that my trip was canceled. I’m not proud of that behavior. I was thinking “I” not “We.”
Now I know better. I’ve studied King’s philosophies and I know the "I have a Dream" speech like the back of my hand, having taught it for years. It’s written in the language of “we,” calling for collective action towards equality of men: "We must forever conduct our struggle “on the high plane of dignity and discipline. [And] we cannot walk alone.”
King never walked alone. On one side, stood his followers. And on the other side, stood Gandhi. It’s an interesting thread of thought: King was influenced by Gandhi, who in turn was influenced by poet Henry David Thoreau; each man used civil disobedience and nonviolence to protest racial and economic inequality. Folks at King’s alma mater, Morehouse college, have created a stunning video tribute to these men: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=l9VexOP9PDg, men who were willing to sacrifice their lives—or spend time in jail—to promote human dignity.
There are so many different threads in Kings’ speech. “I have a Dream” is chock filled with literary devices, symbols, poetic devices, and historical connections (promise to break them down in later posts). But today, I want to concentrate on the second thread in the Morehouse College clip, the thread that focuses on community. A sense of belonging. Collaboration. Dialogue. We teachers have a responsibility to build a community of learners.. We must help our students (like ten year old Stern) move from “I” to a respectful and collaborative “we.” Not like the folks in Congress, but like the “table of brotherhood” King envisions. John Dewey would wholeheartedly agree.
Come up with a few new strategies to promote classroom and school community. Try moving desks around in a circle for more student centered dialogue. Give students the option of collaborating on projects together—even writing a paper together. Give students some choice in terms of assignments and /or opportunities for greater creative expression. Try problem-based learning. Participate in a community project. Teach listening skills and/or conflict resolution strategies. Make sure that your students are physically and mentally prepared to learn: proper nutrition and health care. Share ideas with fellow teachers. Reach out to families and students. Remember, your students and your teaching peers should not “walk alone.”
On Dr. Martin Luther King’s Day, think big about social justice, but also reflect on a micro level on community and the power of “we.” How can we support each other as learners? Kings’ message of brotherhood (and others) still resonate. Gandhi is right. No assassin could silence his word.