Care and Feeding

Martin Luther King Jr. Day Should Be a Day of Service and Reflection

How can I best honor his legacy with my 6-year-old?

A mom and her daughter write MLK on poster board.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by FlamingoImages/iStock/Getty Images Plus.

Care and Feeding is Slate’s parenting advice column. In addition to our traditional advice, every Thursday we feature an assortment of teachers from around the country answering your education questions. Have a question for our teachers? Email askateacher@slate.com or post it in the Slate Parenting Facebook group.

This week’s Ask a Teacher panel:

Brandon Hersey, second grade, Washington
Matthew Dicks, fifth grade, Connecticut
Amy Scott, eighth grade, North Carolina
Cassy Sarnell, preschool special education, New York

Do you have a recommendation for a way my 6-year-old can honor Martin Luther King Jr. on Martin Luther King Jr. Day? Last year, my child had school, and the school had a Parade of Nations. Twenty-seven nations were represented by the student body. Excellent! This year, my child has the day off. I believe it should be a day of service or a day to reflect on Dr. King’s teachings. What are some things (minus books—we have several) that we can do without getting too deep so early? Or would that be OK?

—Let’s Honor Dr. King

Hey LHDK!

What a wonderful question. Thanks for taking the time to honor King’s legacy with your family. There are many thoughtful ways you can reflect on what this day means with your son. In our classroom this week, we are writing letters to our state legislators about how King’s teachings are even more important today. In the letters my students have mentioned how treating each other with kindness and respect should be an expectation, not a goal. Writing a letter with your son to someone important in our government or your community is a great way for you to reflect on King’s contributions together.

If you’re looking for something more service oriented, I’d check out your local NAACP chapter’s website to see if they have any events planned. These events are great opportunities to meet new people and show kids the impact that King and other civil rights leaders have had on our communities.

I know you mentioned you have many books, but here are some of my favorites. I love the picture book Martin’s Big Words: The Life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. I read this book every year to my scholars, and they rave about it. If you’re looking for something the whole family can enjoy, I’d suggest the movie Our Friend Martin. It’s an oldie but a goodie, which I highly recommend.

Thanks again for celebrating King with your family, and I hope you all have a wonderful MLK Day!

—Mr. Hersey

What are your views on assigning 30 minutes of reading as homework for early elementary school students? I feel like it makes reading into a chore, versus something fun. I feel nervous that my child will go from enjoying reading to viewing it as one more thing they “have” to do.

—Reading Should Be Fun

Dear Reading,

I am not a fan of homework for early elementary students. I’d much prefer that young children have time to play, rest, and spend time with their families. My first-grade son is not assigned homework, and I couldn’t be more pleased. When we arrived home from school yesterday, we played a board game together, wrestled on the couch, and I taught him how to load silverware into a dishwasher, all of which I find more valuable than completing a worksheet on addition.

That said, I support reading every single day as a means of helping children learn this complex skill. I also believe that reading at home on a regular basis teaches kids to love books and see them as part of your everyday life.

I do think that teachers can sometimes interfere with students learning to foster this love. For example, I don’t believe in nightly reading logs, for the reason you state. Reading should not be a chore, and any teacher who thinks a reading log will ensure that a child is reading every night has never forged a parent’s signature or completed their homework on the bus ride to school.

At-home reading should also be flexible in order to meet your family’s needs. This means that parents can read to children, or children can read to parents, or parents and children can sit side by side, reading independently. It doesn’t matter how reading happens as long as it happens.

I’m also a believer in allowing children to choose whatever they want to read at home. While teachers are always introducing students to new genres and constantly assessing students’ reading levels to ensure that the material they are reading is challenging, reading at home should be a sanctuary from these demands. Picture books, chapter books, magazines, American Girl catalogs, graphic novels, recipes, poetry … as long as they are engaging with written material that they respond to, all is well.

Thirty minutes is a good amount of time to read, but I always tell parents to view that as an average. There may be busy nights when reading a picture book for 10 minutes is more than enough. On other nights, you might spend 45 minutes or an hour plowing through five picture books or three chapters of a novel.

Choosing an arbitrary amount of time to read is silly to me. I teach kids to read to the end of the page. Read to the end of the chapter. Finish the book. Read until we get to the dentist’s office. Don’t read until some arbitrary timer goes off. Just read.

Do my kids read for 30 minutes? I have no idea. We read until the kids are tired. Or until they seem to be losing interest. Sometimes it’s much more, sometimes it’s much less. Then I write “30 minutes” on their stupid reading logs, because when I was a kid, I forged my parents’ signatures all the time.

—Mr. Dicks

I would love to hear your thoughts on parents’ participation in big school projects. How involved should parents be in middle school and high school with things like physics projects, science fair projects, reports, presentations, etc.? How does it affect your impression of a project when it’s obvious a parent has been very involved? What do you view as an appropriate level of involvement from parents?

—A 14-Year-Old Did That?

Dear A14YODT,

When I was a kid, projects were, for the most part, assigned and then completed outside of school. Wildly, they were only sometimes related to the curriculum we were doing in class. They required poster board we asked our moms to buy the night before the project was due. Or costumes we requested that she make, also the night before the project was due.

Now, it’s not like that. Or I guess I should say, that’s not how I approach projects, and I hope other teachers don’t either.

I teach eighth-grade English, and in my class, projects are not just linked to but part of the same curriculum I’m teaching at school. I give students oral and written instructions about what to do and tell them exactly when it’s due. I hand them a rubric so they know how the project will be graded. I offer them resources and materials. And, maybe most importantly, I give them time in class to work on it so I can help and monitor progress. Any time I assign a project, the students have five to 20 minutes every class period to work on it. Yes, some of them will squander their class time and have to hustle the weekend before the due date, but many of them will not have to take any work home with them at all.

In other words, most of my projects don’t require any input from Mom or Dad, and I prefer it that way. While I appreciate parental support, it can cause frustration for me and for them. First of all, the project is an opportunity for me to see if the kids understood the content and can implement the concepts and skills I taught them in class. If parents jump in, those waters get muddied. Second, parents will often spend a lot of time and effort touching up things that aren’t even graded on the rubric. If I haven’t taught it, it’s not fair for me to grade on it. Mom, for instance, may spend an hour fixing lapses in parallelism that aren’t going to change the kid’s grade. Of course, it’s great if the kid learns parallel structure in the process, but a parent simply tinkering with grammar on her own helps no one.

Also, I’m a parent. I know what it feels like to look at a project assignment with dread. Parents are tired. Parents have stuff to do. Asking parents to supervise or oversee or do a project with or—sometimes—for their kids is cruel. By the time dinner is cooked and eaten, the kitchen is tidied up, PJs are on, and teeth are brushed, I find it hard enough to read to my kids, and I’m an English teacher!

In an ideal world, communication between parents and teachers would be so streamlined and expectations so clear that parents could reinforce the content and concepts without overstepping any boundaries or overexerting themselves. But that day is not today. I say let kids do the projects.

(Obviously, extracurriculars like science fairs, Science Olympiad, Odyssey of the Mind, pinewood derby, etc., are different. Check with the coach or coordinator to see how much parental input they expect.)

—Ms. Scott

My bright, kind, creative 4-year-old is in his second year at a private school specifically geared for children with a rare neuro-motor disorder. Last year we had a wonderful experience and watched him grow and develop at a rate that stunned and delighted his doctors and therapists. This year, because of his amazing progress, I returned to work for the first time since his birth. This means that instead of the half-day program he attended last year, he now attends a full day of school plus an afterschool program. While he previously loved school, he now proclaims to hate it. Most of his anxieties seem to revolve around the legally required rest time.

I’ve spoken with his teachers (who are wonderful and care about him), and I’ve tried a few different techniques for making rest time less stressful (bringing a special pillow from his bed, role-playing rest time at home, discussing quiet activities he can do if he can’t sleep). But he can’t seem to adjust. His high tuition necessitates that I work (our local public school is terrible, otherwise he’d be in our public pre-K program), and I don’t know what to do to help him deal with the one portion of the day that is ruining school for him. Is it overdramatic to worry that I’m going to quash his love of learning by forcing him to stay in the program? He’s continuing to make such tremendous strides that I can’t bear the thought of pulling him from this amazing school.

—Rest Time = Stress Time

Dear Rest Time,

It’s a little overdramatic—I’m not gonna lie. It sounds like you’ve found an incredible school for your son, and it sounds like everyone involved is doing their best to take care of his needs—and that includes you.

It’s hard to tell you how to help him without a little more information, but I’ll try. The preschool I work in has five hours of program, and we’re not allowed to provide rest time during those hours (because of individualize education programs and compliance), so if our kiddos nap, it’s during our after-school program. If his rest time is during the after-school program, he might already be tired of school by the time rest time rolls around. When school is finished, he might be frustrated it’s not time to go home yet, and that frustration is making him antsy, and that antsiness is making him restless.

My guess is that most of his problem is simply this adjustment to his new day. If he was used to going home and then being with you after three hours of school, and now it’s suddenly five or more hours without seeing you, that might be the cause of the anxiety. Similarly, if he’s used to napping with you, and he’s now expected to nap at school, that change could be causing him stress. Children need time to acclimate to new situations, just like the rest of us, but they have fewer tools to do so. That’s why consistency and routine are so important for kids. Give him time to settle in and find his groove with this new routine. If you feel the newness of this situation is the problem, try to show him how consistent this new schedule is: Make a visual schedule so he sees that rest time is a part of his day, and try to keep his days as consistent as possible so he can see that the routine does not change.

Overall, it sounds like you’re doing all the right things. Keep on doing what you’re doing. It really seems like you’ve got a good situation, and I have faith that with time it will work itself out.

—Ms. Sarnell