Tag Archives: Letter from a Birmingham Jail

Teaching the Articles of Confederation– with an assist from MLK

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Last post we had Einstein assisting MLK to teach the  Letter From a Birmingham Jail.  For this post we’re using a MLK quote to teach the Articles of Confederation, another required document in the AP government and politics course.

 

Martin Luther King Jr I Have a Dream Speech 08-28-1963 Lincoln M

 

“Freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed.

Tell students to…

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

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

3. Share responses privately in groups of three

4. Share out with the entire class

MLK’s quote is clear enough: if you want freedom, you have to go out and get it, which is exactly what the colonists did when frustrations with England boiled over. To expect those in authority to give freedom is naive and the colonists knew it.

Now let’s connect this theme of freedom to the student:

Most students know all too well the futility of expecting authority figures– parents, coaches for example–to give them freedoms. A good part of growing up is spent demanding privileges while knowing that few may be granted and that the better thing to do is to obey the rules. Granted, sometimes demanding freedom yields success but other times the requests end up with a resounding ‘No’.  Encourage students to share their frustrations and successes in this opening conversation. We know they’ll have a wealth of experiences from which to draw.

For the third and last step, introduce a question which encapsulates the themes of freedom and oppression AND connects to the personal experiences of students which were unearthed in the opening conversation.  Here’s one that might get their attention: Can too much freedom be dangerous?

Now pivot to the Articles of Confederation…question-mark-2525248_960_720

This essential question gives you the ideal tool to open up student understanding of the Articles.  As the document makes clear, the states were obsessive about demanding their freedom and sovereignty, often at the expense of the federal government’s power.  As we know, that obsession with freedom will eventually lead to all kinds of governing problems later.

Give out excerpts of the Articles  along with the essential question and tell students to find examples in the text of the states trying to assert authority at the expense of the federal government, which essentially was relegated to the role of weak referee.  As a support for this text you may want to show a short video like this one from C-Span which provides some context. In the short discussion that follows you’ll definitely want to refer back to the personal experiences of the students to make extemporaneous connections.

These are great teaching moments waiting to happen because you are linking their lived experiences with otherwise lifeless curriculum.

This doesn’t have to be a long lesson at all and certainly– depending on the student ability level– we shouldn’t expect that students will pull out all of the necessary information from the document. But at the very least, this approach will generate some interest on the theme of freedom and its limits, something that you can come back to when studying how the Constitution fixed the problems.

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Below are some more examples of how to go through this 3-step process with other quotations. As you read these, think about the primary sources you teach and how you might make them more interesting using the quotations, claims, counterclaims and essential questions featured on the posts.

Aesop  Be content with your lot; one cannot be first in everything.

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

Margaret Mitchell  Life’s under no obligation to give us what we expect.

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

Ernest Hemingway  Courage is grace under pressure

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

 

An AP government student asked a really Big Question and here’s what happened…

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Students come up with stunningly good questions.

Sometimes those questions take over the class.

I just experienced this first hand during a discussion on Plato’s Crito and Martin Luther King’s Letter From a Birmingham Jail  (one of the required documents in the redesigned AP government course.) Continue reading