Teaching the Letter From a Birmingham Jail… with an assist from Einstein

cellMLK’s Letter From a Birmingham Jail is a true classic, both for its historical significance and unapologetic endorsement of non-violent civil disobedience. It actually made the list of required readings for the AP government/politics course, a list that includes Federalist Paper #10, #51 and even the Constitution.

It’s not easy to teach, though. The letter has profound ideas about the relationship between the individual and the state which are hard for students to appreciate.

Here’s a different way of teaching the letter using a compelling quote by Albert Einstein to start things off:
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“Never do anything against conscience, even if the state demands it.” 

Tell students to…

1. State the claim that Einstein is making by putting it in their own words

2. Establish a counterclaim which goes against Einstein’s thinking.

3. Share responses privately in groups of three

4. Share out with the entire class

The quote exposes the tension between an individual’s duty to follow moral conscience and the duty to follow government laws, duties which often conflict.  Einstein clearly provokes us to follow our conscience, not the law.

In the ensuing conversation encourage students to bring up situations where THEY must decide between obeying their morals or obeying the government. There’s always the refusal to go to war because of religious reasons, but there are others. This week I had a student describe how his father– who was religiously opposed to vaccinations for his children– was forced to obey the laws of the state of Illinois. He had a very difficult choice to make. This issue hits home emotionally in a very real way.question-mark-2525248_960_720

After the conversation, think about a really good essential question that puts everything together.  Here’s one I developed recently: Should you ever disobey a law if it offends your moral conscience?

With this question in hand, give out King’s Letter and tell the students to think and write about how MLK would answer the essential question using specific textual references from the document. You could give them this task as an in-class writing assignment, for homework or even as preparation for a Socratic seminar discussion. The possibilities are vast.

What has happened here?

Well, a lot.

You started the students off with a provocative quotation with a theme connected to a primary source.  You challenged students to think critically about the quotation by coming up with a claim and counterclaim and then had a thoughtful conversation about the meaning of Einstein’s quote as it relates to students’ lived experiences. Then you capitalized on their emotional investment in this conversation by creating an essential question designed to generate interest and excitement in the letter.

Yes, this process takes up a little class time and demands some careful thinking on your part. But think about what you are doing.  You’re ensuring that when students read this letter that it will be more interesting, more meaningful and connected to their lives in a real way. The upfront investment is worth it.

Here are some more examples of how to go through this 3-step process with other quotations. They come from another blog I’m managing for Teach Different, a professional development organization geared towards helping teachers design and implement essential-questions.

As you read these posts think about the primary sources you teach and how you might make them more interesting.


Mahatma Gandhi   Non-cooperation with evil is as much a duty as is cooperation with good

Leo Tolstoy  Everyone thinks of changing the world, but no one thinks of changing himself.

Benjamin Franklin   Energy and persistence conquer all things. 

Asechylus   Wisdom comes alone through suffering.

Henry Ford    Failure is the opportunity to begin again more intelligently


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Want to learn more about how to use this 3-Step process to build essential questions?

Click HERE

 

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