(A child singing, “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands”)
The kids at the Martin Luther King Jr Early Learning Center aren’t shy about getting on stage. They’re only four year old but they radiate confidence as they step up to the mic to recite passages from King’s speeches. Principal Gabrielle Coleman says their big focus at the school is teaching children how to communicate.
“As a teacher, I would hear children struggling with reading and I believe reading starts in the early grades with building that foundation. So this is my passion, to get these children literate, to make sure they have the reading skills that they need to be able to be successful.”
The Early Learning Center has over 400 pre-K students. Coleman says King’s concepts are a big part of what they teach. They use age-appropriate books to teach kids about King’s life and how to get along and peacefully settle disputes. Teachers use examples from King’s speeches in lessons on communication. They also talk to kids about prejudice. Coleman says they do exercises where children wear different color wristbands and the teacher tells them they can’t talk to each other.
“And we have discussions with the children, you know, is it right, is there any reason why the child with the red band can’t be friends with the child with the blue band. That’s how we try to teach it. We don’t harbor on it, we don’t belabor it. It’s just, when they ask us about prejudice, when that word comes up, because we teach vocabulary here, that’s how we kind of teach it.”
But it’s often the personal details of King’s life that that spark the preschoolers’ curiosity. Coleman says kids ask basic questions like who were King’s parents and where did he go to school.
“It helps them understand, to be relevant to them, because the most important thing to them is home. Who is their mom? Who is their dad? So that is how they identify with anything we teach here, what is the relevance to their worlds.”
And while they don’t get into a lot of detail about King’s assassination, Coleman says the children often want to talk about it with their parents.
“Sometimes the most profound thing that stays with a child this young is that he died. You know, that’s hard for these children. When parents tell me, you know, they talked about how did he die. They want to know how did he die. Why did he die? And the way that we present it to them: there are good people and there are bad people and sometimes things happen. We don’t want them to so that’s why we try to work on the social skills.”
The school is marking the holiday by unveiling a bust of King at the school’s entrance. Parents and students raised money over the past several years to commission the life-size bust. It was done by internationally-known sculptor Tony Sherman. He’s also an HISD graduate. Coleman hopes King’s image will serve as a powerful symbol to her young students as they begin their educational journey.