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October 2004 - Issue No. #55 (p.8-10)

Celebrating Martin Luther King Day at Your School

by Susan Branz

Tokyo, Japan


Martin Luther King, Jr. Day is not just a national holiday in the U.S. It is observed all over the world by people who respect the contributions of Dr. King. This coming year Martin Luther King, Jr. Day will be celebrated on January 17, 2005. The theme is:

Remember, Celebrate, Act...
A Day On, Not a Day Off

By observing this holiday with your students, you can start the New Year by introducing issues of human rights, non-violence, peace, tolerance and volunteerism.


We had our first Martin Luther King Day celebration (I Have A Dream Day) at our school in 2002. This was a private girl's junior and senior high in Tokyo where my American colleague and I worked for two years. We were the first native English-speaking teachers at the school and held this celebration for the two consecutive years that we were full-time teachers there. The celebration consisted of an afternoon of poetry recitations, songs and skits related to the themes of peace, justice, human rights and intercultural understanding.

The reason we introduced Martin Luther King Day at our school was that it was one way we thought we could tap into the talent and energy of our students in a way that would be educationally meaningful and make a statement about our ideals and values of cross-cultural understanding, human rights, peace and service to humanity.

Since Dr. King's birthday became a national holiday in the United States, I had always looked forward to attending community events to commemorate his life and work. I regard the MLK Day holiday as the most important holiday we observe. I would like to emphasize that it is not a holiday limited to the United States. People all over the world have been inspired by the work of Dr. King and people all over the world celebrate his birthday. Therefore, I wanted to share this holiday with the students and faculty of our school.

During our English classes, we focused on the biography of Martin Luther King. We taught about his life and work by introducing vocabulary, dates, and events. We also used songs and poems for further vocabulary development and pronunciation practice.

What We Did

To hold our Martin Luther King Day school event, we followed the following steps:

  1. We first got permission to have a school celebration to commemorate the birthday of Martin Luther King. With the help of a Japanese teacher of English, we then invited students, teachers and clubs to participate in the celebration.

  2. We then collected materials such as picture books and videos and used these to introduce the life of Dr. King in our classes. We also introduced poems related to peace, justice, and human rights. For both of these, we did English vocabulary, comprehension and pronunciation activities to familiarize students with the content.

  3. We then gave our students a homework assignment to memorize a poem on this topic during the New Year's break.

  4. After the break, each student individually recited their poem for a grade during the first class of the New Year.

  5. We selected those students who had made a good faith effort with the assignment and asked them to recite their poems during our MLK Day celebration. In some classes, we organized a choral recitation for performance during the celebration.

  6. Finally, we made an official program and had a rehearsal with all the participants before putting on the actual event.

Reaction of students and teachers

The reaction of the school to our event was very positive. Some students told us they discussed these activities with their parents and grandparents, many of whom were old enough to remember Dr. King. The younger students were inspired by the presentations of the older students. Several faculty members also supported us by encouraging the students and by attending the event.

Looking back, I now feel that this was the most memorable, worthwhile and meaningful activity we did at our school. This event allowed us to relate to both students and faculty on a deeper level than ever before and became the highlight of the year for us as the native English-speaking teachers.

Suggestions for your own school event

The following are suggestions of ways to honor Dr. King with your students and colleagues. These are based on the experience we had at our own junior/senior high school in Japan. The activities described can be adapted to fit any teaching situation.

  1. Ask your administration to schedule a time and place for the celebration around January 15th. If a special event at your school is impossible to coordinate, have a celebration during your regular scheduled class.

  2. Before the holiday, bring in books and videos related to Dr. King's life and work. There are a variety of simple picture books and videos appropriate for any age. You could also introduce the US Civil Rights Memorial (designed by Maya Lin, designer of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial). Inspiring books and videos about Maya Lin and how she designed the Civil Rights Memorial are also available (see pg. 10).

  3. Do a service project. We invited a guest speaker from the Minsai Center, a Japanese NGO which supports the education of children in Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, and Afghanistan. Since the MLK holiday is promoted as a day of service,we organized a

    Minsai Center's Darunee Scholarship

    Details in Japanese at or in English at
    school-wide drive (to collect mis-written postcards) in order to support the education of children in less developed countries through the Minsai Center's Darunee Scholarship. Thanks to this, our school supports the education of three junior high school students in Thailand.

  4. Introduce songs and poems related to Dr. King's ideals. We selected both well-known songs such as "Imagine" by John Lennon and "Blowing in the Wind" by Bob Dylan as well as lesser-known poems and songs such as "Human Family" by Maya Angelou, "Dreams" by Langston Hughes, "No Difference" by Shel Silverstein, and "My Rainbow Race" by Pete Seeger. A relevant contemporary rap song is "Where is the Love" by the Black Eyed Peas.

  5. If possible, invite representatives from various school clubs, such as the chorus, band and dance clubs to participate.

  6. Include recitations not only in English but also in Japanese. Two suggestions are the song "Satokibibatake" by Ryoko Moriyama and the poem "Ame Ni Mo Makezu" by Kenji Miyazawa. You may get other ideas by talking with teachers at your school.

As a result of this project, numerous connections were made by students and teachers. One student, interested in sign language, learned how to "sign" the poem she recited. Another student went home and discussed Dr. King with her family and found out that her grandfather remembered him and the times. She returned to school, enthusiastically, with information which she and her grandfather had discovered together on the internet. Various students and teachers gave positive feedback concerning this project.

Please consider beginning the year 2005 by observing this holiday with your students. Feel free to contact me for more suggestions and/or comments related to celebrating Martin Luther King Jr. Day with students here in Japan.

Quotes by Martin Luther King, Jr.

- I have the audacity to believe that peoples everywhere can have three meals a day for their bodies, education and culture for their minds, and dignity, equality, and freedom for their spirits.

- Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere

- I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.

Whether we live in America or Asia or Africa we are all tied in a single garment of destiny and whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly.


  • Martin Luther King Center

      Official website of the MLK Center with news, info and teaching resources. Check out their on-line shop full of books, videos, calendars and posters.

  • Education Planet's Guide to MLK Jr.
    • [Link no longer active]
  • Martin Luther King in the Classroom
    •[Link no longer active]


  • Adelman, B. (2004) King: The Photobiography of Martin Luther King Jr. US: Harry Abrams. $20
    - A powerful illustrated photo history of Martin Luther King and the US civil rights movement.
  • Jakoubek, R. (2004) Martin Luther King Jr. - Civil Rights Leader. USA: Chelsea House. $23
    - A 130-page illustrated profile of Dr. King's life.
  • King, M. & Carson, C. (2001) Autobiography of Martin Luther King. USA: Warner Books. $16
    - Martin Luther King's story in his own words.
  • Mattern, J. (1992) Young Martin Luther King, Jr. US: Troll First-Start Biography. $12
    - Large-print easy-to-read biography of MLK, good for children and beginning EFL students.
  • Murray, J. (2005) Martin Luther King Jr. Day (Holidays Set II). USA: Abdo Publishing. $21
    - Information on MLK Day and its meaning.
  • Nobleman, M. (2004) Martin Luther King Jr. Day (Let's See Library). USA: Compass Point. $20
    - Information on MLK Day and its meaning.
  • Turck, M. (2000) The Civil Rights Movement for Kids: A History with 21 Activities. Chicago. $15
    - A kids' reference book and idea bank which includes oral history, drama, songs, arts, crafts.

(Available from

  • I Have a Dream ($15)
  • Free at Last ($8.50)
  • Struggle for Civil Rights Photo Aids ($33)

Susan Branz taught ESL in Hawaii for 20 years before coming to Tokyo. In addition to her work with Martin Luther King Day, she has been teaching Charity English classes in her Japanese community and is very passionate about helping children's education in South East Asia

Susan Branz, English Instructor, Tsuru Bunka Daigaku & Chiba Daigaku, Tokyo, Japan


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