Kids learn a lot outside of the classroom, and the Martin Luther King, Jr., Day of Greatness march, coming up this year on Monday, Jan. 20, is, for many, a chance to learn about the importance of civil discourse and activism. Sonia Galaviz is a fifth grade teacher at Garfield Elementary in Boise—every year she brings her classroom to participate.
“I think we need to see MLK Day as more than just a day off of school,” she said. “It’s an opportunity to teach students about the movement and it’s not a day off, it’s a day on. So much learning happens.
As in years past, the event this year begins with poster making in the Jordan Ballroom at Boise State University. At 10:30 a.m., marchers will leave the SUB and head to the Idaho State Capitol. Galaviz said her students will remember participating for the rest of their lives because they see the power of people coming together to make their voices heard.
Galaviz won the NEA Foundation’s Member Benefits Award for Teaching Excellence in 2017 and is currently pursuing her doctorate in education at Boise State. She has built teaching diversity and the power of resistance to hate into her curriculum. For her, the experience of marching is an aspect of teaching the importance of embracing diversity.
BW: How long has your classroom participated in the march?
SG: I was trying to figure that out this week. It’s either year 13 or 14.
BW: How does actively participating in the march affect the students?
SG: The march embodies action, students’ voices, a collective community focus, and our rights and responsibilities as citizens to speak out and gather to promote what we want in our community/country/world, and openly protest what we do not. The march gives my students and I the context to relate to our brothers and sisters that march around this country and around the world for causes they believe in. The march also helps build context for the marches done during the Civil Rights Movement in the South and within the Chicano Movement. You can read and learn and study about the movement, but putting your feet on the pavement for a real march is something else. The experience is visceral in that it moves us, develops our compassion for others, and brings history to life when we honor Dr. King and leaders in the movement through the march.
BW: Do you see political polarization in the classroom? Does learning about MLK bring some connection with the kids?
SG: My students and I embrace the opportunity to talk about current events and the news happening around the world. We don’t shy away from difficult conversations. In fact, it is through these conversations that we learn from each other, our backgrounds and our experiences, both personally and collectively. Many of my students know discrimination first-hand. Garfield Elementary has students from over 20 different countries around the world. As the only Title 1 School in the Timberline quadrant, we serve families with some substantial challenges and economic need. Many of my students have felt the pain of being treated as “other.” It is my job as their teacher to create a safe space in the classroom and opportunities to draw connections between struggles and see the human condition that connects these experiences.
BW: Some people might say that race relations in America are a non-issue. How would you respond to that?
SG: People who that think that race relations are not an issue in this country must live or exist in a mental silo. ... It is imperative that we broaden our vantage point and seek out the stories of the underrepresented. Racism, hatred, intolerance and oppression evolve rapidly inside of ignorance and fear. Keeping the march alive means confronting ignorance and fear all year long, in our daily lives. I’m a big proponent of helping students develop their voice to speak openly about that which they think is unjust. Kids are the best at this. They can call out hypocrisy, injustice and those who are just “not nice” better than any group I know. Kids get it and it’s inspiring. They’re not confined by bureaucracy or the million excuses adults have to not facilitate change. Kids call us out. I think of the quote by Elie Wiesel: “We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.”
BW: How do you approach teaching MLK’s legacy to your students?
SG: I teach the legacy through the context of the movement at large. I dedicate five weeks to teaching the movement each year after teaching the Civil War for five weeks. It’s important for students to know the history of enslaved people in this country, and where institutionalized racism and bigotry began. Fully understanding the movement means examining the roots of that hatred and oppression. I use a lot of teaching material and texts from the organization Teaching Tolerance. They are the education arm of the Southern Poverty Law Center, our country’s hate group watchdog. We also spend a lot of time examining the children’s role in the movement. I love teaching about the Children’s Movement in Birmingham, Alabama. The students see themselves in the spirit of the children in Birmingham, 1963. Their bravery, their creativity and their collective action inspires my class to follow that example. Children are a powerful voice for justice and a powerful force in the action needed for change.
BW: What do you want your students to take away from the experience?
SG: I want them to feel the power of a collective voice. I want them to meet new people and speak their truth. Their experiences matter. The movement is more than a period in history: It’s life right now. Those that are oppressed in this country and around the world are our brothers and sisters. They matter. I hope my students feel and see the energy of the march. It’s such a beautiful experience and one they’ll remember their whole life, I hope.