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Building Background for Martin Luther King

rsbsadmin 3.3 Martin Luther King Jr., Background Knowledge, Sarah Linington Leave a Comment

The third graders and I have been waiting excitedly to jump into our next CIA unit…

Frustratingly, my actual start date of the Martin Luther King, Jr. biography unit kept getting pushed back, first as I gathered and prepared my materials, then as I fit it into our district unit of study in nonfiction, and finally as I stayed home with flu. Luckily, with the theme of civil rights, I (and my guest teachers) were able to spend the days back from winter break exposing students to expository texts around this concept and really focus on the text features of nonfiction that would help us navigate his biography (specifically photographs, captions, bold and italicized words, table of contents, index, glossary, and timelines.)

The concept of time is tricky. The farther back we go, the harder it is for students to abstract the differences between modern times and another era. Luckily, Martin Luther King, Jr. is set in a time not too far away, with at least recognizable vehicles and fashion. But to really understand the struggles we would read about, I wanted to give students a fast train back to the origins of African American struggle since African slavery was first introduced to the Americas.

Background Knowledge

To do this, I needed a long time line and I needed to show how a timeline worked, how things change over time, and a concept of how long time really is—all in a few short days before our unit. First, I made a butcher paper time line, divided into decades from 2020 back to 1490 and European first encounters. Then, I decided to ease the students into changes over time within the last 100 years. I wanted to use pictures and show something familiar changing over time. The easiest (and maybe the most interesting to my boys) seemed to be cars. I found a car picture for each decade –as well as a few pictures of vehicles before cars were more standard transportation– and posted them on the time line. We talked about how I knew what year the cars were by the line connecting them to the date on the timeline; we also talked about why I didn’t keep going back before the horse and wagon pictures (because it would be hundreds of years of horses and wagons, so we decided to assume it was the same before that time.)

After this introduction, we put ourselves on the time line. From this point, whenever we read a text with a date, we referred to the timeline. As we read several articles on immigration and slavery (Toolkit Texts selected by Stephanie Harvey and Anne Goudvis for grades 2-3 and 4-5), picture books of Ruby Bridges and Jackie Robinson with focus on cause/effect, and watched the Martin Luther King, Jr. speech, we added dates to our timeline. Finally, we did a picture walk (select illustrations from Many Thousand Gone by Virginia Hamilton) of slavery from captive to emancipation and put them on our timeline. I included recognizable pictures of Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King, Jr. to help students understand why MLK, Jr. said, “100 years …and still not free,” in his ‘I Have a Dream’ speech.

On the genre study for biography, we referred to Ruby Bridges, using her as an example for each important element of biography. One part of the genre poster that I’d like to focus more on is “what readers think about” and really push students to use the poster as a reference guide more than we did with our previous CIA unit. We also had a bonus project to research and create our own family trees before winter break. The students who chose to do this and present to us set up the rest of the class for understanding Martin’s family tree as a strategy in our unit.

I am hopeful that with this background, we will be better able to absorb and discuss what we learn in Martin’s biography, ready to compare and contrast Martin to Gandhi, and wrap our minds around the big questions around what drove Martin and Coretta to keep fighting for equal rights for all.


Written by Sarah Linington — 3rd Grade Teacher

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