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Self-direction gives teens the chance to show they can make wise and loving choices, that they have a good sense of what’s important and what’s needed in the moment. It also lets them feel their effects on others, and understand both the joy and responsibility that comes with being in charge. This was on full display at Bucks Learning Cooperative this year on the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday.
I used to be a social studies teacher in Trenton, NJ, before becoming a mentor at BLC. In those schools, there was quite a bit of emphasis on teaching about the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. and other civil rights leaders. Kids heard about minority issues year-round and by the time they were in high school, could hold very informed conversations on this topic.
But I’ve taught in enough places to know this isn’t the case in all or even most districts. So last year, I asked our members what they knew about King. They did have some idea of who he was and knew he’d been assassinated, but for most that was all. Only one had heard his “Dream” speech and none had read his famous “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”.
I explained a bit more about civil rights and segregation and suggested to them that since the classes we had at the moment wouldn’t get to touch on King much, that perhaps we might like to honor him by coming in on his holiday and learning more. They all thought it was a great idea and asked me to lead a special program, which I did. They enjoyed it very much and said they’d learned a lot.
This year they decided we should again remain open for MLK Day and this time, they wanted to run the program themselves. Several members chose various aspects of black history and civil rights issues to focus on and prepared their own presentations without any help from the staff. We also officially opened our program to the public, listing it on our website, while teen members invited their friends from public school.
On King’s day, almost everyone decided to come in and we did have guests. Once the presentations began, everyone chose to sit in on the special program their friends had put together.
The presenters had prepared their material very well, choosing salient points to zoom in on, while still keeping the big picture in view. Their friends learned facts, heard original speeches, watched old news footage and saw pictures. The student leaders covered black history from the end of the 19th century to the present day and at the end, they facilitated a wonderful discussion in which several points of view were heard and answered, always in respectful terms. The staff watched from the wings, letting the kids run the show—and what a wonderful experience it was!
I hope Doctor King would be happy to know that BLC’s members spent his day thinking deeply about him and his colleagues, and discussing ways in which they too can lead this country to greater brotherhood and understanding.