Q&A: A Lesson in Understanding the Legacy of Dr. King


A conversation with Elizabeth Vargas, M.Ed., a Lead Teacher at May Center School for Brain Injury and Neurobehavioral Disorders, and a member of the Diversity and Inclusion Council.  

How do you introduce Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s work to your students? 

“Every year, we talk about what MLK day is and why we celebrate it as a national holiday. Sometimes, depending upon how long I’ve had students, I may need to do a bit of review. We may have to go back to something as basic as ‘what race is,’ which isn’t actually that basic. But if we’re going to talk about what Dr. King’s legacy is about, we have to talk about race and its history in America.”

How do you engage your students in the lesson?

“It’s very easy to take a basic lesson or video on Dr. King that’s leveled for the students and say, ‘Okay, this is what it is,’ and then ask questions. But what we really want to do is check for understanding. We do that in a few ways, but one of the most important ways is by asking them how they feel about it and how it relates to their life and the people that they care about. And we ask them if they have ever experienced anything that maybe Dr. King’s work helped make a little better.

I had a student who did not have a diverse life experience and he said, ‘I knew that not all my friends looked like me. I didn’t realize that they didn’t have the same opportunities as me all the time, that not everything is the same for everybody, and I’m thinking about that more now.’”  

When your students have those “ah ha” moments, how does that make you feel?

“I feel so proud to see them understand, integrate, and generalize things into their experience. I can give them all the knowledge I want, and they can give it back to me, but if it doesn’t connect, and if it isn’t meaningful to them, then I haven’t really done my job. But if they’re able to access it in a meaningful way and generalize it to their other academic tasks and their experiences in life, then that, for me, is the whole reason I’m so passionate about teaching. Having them go out into the world and feel proud of their knowledge and be able to share it with their peers and family… that confidence it gives them, makes me feel good too.”

How have you seen students connect the lesson about Dr. King to their other academic tasks?

“For instance, after we’ve talked about Dr. King, when we then learn about the Holocaust and learn about Anne Frank, they will see the connection between those two things. So, when we get to the Civil War and we talk about slavery, they will again make that connection. Oh wow! It’s been hundreds of years since slavery ended, and Dr. King did his work, and this is still a problem. We still need to get better.”

Some people may say that students with special needs should be focused elsewhere academically. What do you say to those individuals?

“A lot of times when students have special needs, they can be shielded from information that is relevant and meaningful to them, but they might not even get an opportunity to talk about it. If they do have the ability to understand, it’s really important to expose them to it because the truth is they have to exist where everyone might not look like them. They should understand that and have compassion for each other. So, it really isn’t just about academics, it’s about life experience and better understanding the interaction between the people in the community and themselves and their peers.”