With diversity today meaning more than skin color, Martin Luther King Jr. Day offers students of different religions, ethnicities and backgrounds the opportunity to learn about those differences and how they can be a part of life, but not define it.
While students have today off to celebrate what would be his 83rd birthday, suburban teachers have been using a variety of techniques to recognize the civil rights hero's contributions to society and show how his dedication to equality has touched lives.
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We visited schools around the area to get a look at what students are doing, from writing poems and essays to engaging in service projects to keep King's dream alive.
Bridges vs. walls
Ann Caster asked the 6- and 7-year-old students in her first-grade class at Robert Frost Elementary School in Mount Prospect to imagine a world where they couldn't play with their friends or go to the same school as people who are different from them. With at least eight different languages spoken within her 21-student class, Caster's students were shocked at the idea of such a divided world.
"It would be sad if we couldn't all play together," said Hyunyoung Mo, 7, of Prospect Heights. "He said everything should be fair, and he was right."
Caster asked students to finish the sentence "I have a dream" with their own dreams for the future. Their dreams included "that everyone will be nice to each other," "that there will be no more poor people," "that all people will have enough food," "that everyone will share," and "that the earth will be nice and clean."
"It will make the world better if everyone is nice to everyone and there's no fighting," said Carolina Dankowski, 7, of Prospect Heights. "He made the world better so everyone can be friends no matter how they look."
Be the change
This is an excerpt from an essay written by Allison Rychtanek, a sophomore at Larkin High School in Elgin. The entire essay is at dailyherald.com:
"While much effort has been made so racist abuse is not as prevalent in today's society as back then, another form of abuse, bullying, occurs daily. Words have a powerful effect on people, which is why verbal bullying needs to be eradicated. This can happen by speaking up when you witness bullying and refraining from saying negative comments yourself.
"In recent studies, 39 percent of high schoolers say they don't feel safe at school. Kids are picked on because of how they look, act and think. It's strange that we don't celebrate one's individuality and diversity because those are the things that make society unique and strong. It's important to be different so individuals can come together in a unified society with varied perspectives. Every trait a person has empowers them in some way."
Experiment hits home
Megan Guerrero, a second-grade teacher at May Whitney Elementary School in Lake Zurich, had been giving her students a firsthand lesson in discrimination through her 14-year career and finds it has a long-lasting impact.
When they came into the room last week, students found red or blue stickers at each desk. Children with red stickers did not have to do morning work and were given free time, while the kids with blue stickers did not get the same perks. Red sticker students also were allowed to get their snacks and supplies first.
Cries of "That's not fair" were heard. Guerrero told the children to write down their thoughts.
"I am not feeling good because the red kids get everything and the blue kids get nothing," wrote one. "Today is the worst day of my life. Why can't things change?" wrote another.
Guerrero told them about how many blacks were treated, and added that many people are still being treated unfairly today. Imagine how that would be, she said.
"They really do get it for as young as they are," Guerrero said.
Guerrero said she has had former students, now in high school, recall the experiment and how it felt. "This is something they will remember," she said.
Matt Sniadecki, a language arts and social science teacher at Jefferson Junior High School in Naperville, had his students analyze the connections between King's "I Have a Dream" speech and Abraham Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation.
His students picked out words they found to be particularly powerful from each, then used those words like puzzle pieces to construct a poem of their own called "found poetry."
"One of the skills of poetry and writing is word choice. They were trying to figure out something that really speaks to them," he said. Several of their poems are at dailyherald.com.
More than a man
Walking through the aisles of South Middle School in Arlington Heights, students and visitors learn about not just the historic acts of King, but also of the countless others who helped create change during the civil rights movement.
Nearly 140 eighth-grade social studies students created a civil rights museum, with projects ranging from ones on the bus boycotts to the desegregation of major league sports teams to helping students understand how the color line touched every part of life a few generations ago.
Darius Carney-Thomas, 14, of Arlington Heights hopes to become a Marine, following in his grandfather's footsteps. His project was on the first black Marines in the 1940s. As one of the few black students in his grade, he said he realizes that "without Martin Luther King Jr. and the civil rights movement, none of these things today could be accomplished."
Carney-Thomas' teacher Liz Ruggles said she hopes the project, in its second year, will help students realize how long it took to achieve the level of equality we have today.
Fairness and respect
Students at Fabyan Elementary School in Geneva spent last week watching videos of King's famous "I Have a Dream" speech, reading books and completing assignments on how they can live King's dream at home and at school.
Students also signed a large banner that read: "Fabyan Elementary has a DREAM ... that everyone will be treated fairly and with respect."
"Be nice to everyone and don't judge people by the color of their skin," said Gabrielle Walsh, a second-grader and 8-year-old from Geneva.
Living the dream
Austin Hembd, 10, a fourth-grader at Tarkington school in Wheeling, was inspired to write a story of his own after his parents read him Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech.
The fourth-grader sat down on his own time outside of school to write a story titled "The Dream" that reads in part:
"Ever since my parents read the speech to me, the words 'I had a dream,' spoke to me. They also touched my heart. Since I heard the speech I tried to be like him and live better for him. I am thankful for that speech because if he didn't make it, I would lose half my friends."
Hembd's dream: to someday be a professional football player for his favorite team, the Chicago Bears.
Day of service
Reid Ferro is volunteering for an hour today at the Aurora Public Library.
"I love volunteering because I love helping other people," said Ferro, a 17-year-old student at West Aurora High School. "A lot of kids don't appreciate the day off. It's really nice to be busy doing something that helps others instead of wasting time at home."
Marce Armstrong, a retired West Aurora Disrict 129 teacher and volunteer coordinator, said students will fan out to a variety of locations throughout the city.
"That is what Dr. King was all about -- service," Armstrong said, noting that organizers refer to Monday as a "day on" instead of a "day off."
Students at Jack London Middle School in Wheeling spent Thursday morning working with volunteers from Hands on Suburban Chicago to make at least 50 handmade scarves with personalized notes to donate to Journey from PADS to HOPE and to Bessie's Table.
"Since Martin Luther King Jr. dedicated his life to service and sticking up for people without a voice, we wanted to do something for our community," said Emily Mihalean of Hands on Suburban Chicago.
Nancy Constant asked the 23 students in her second-grade class at Woodland Elementary West in Gages Lake to write essays on how King changed the world. Here are two of their essays, chosen at random:
Archean Sriselvakumar: "Martin Luther King was a peaceful man. He told the black boys and girls and the white boys and girls to hold hands and be nice and peaceful. Martin Luther King had a dream to tell that the white boys and girls should be friends with the black. Martin Luther King was shot by James Earl Ray. Ray was sentenced to prison and he died. Martin Luther King was a great man!"
Papal Sutaria: "Martin Luther King Jr. wanted everything and everyone to be peaceful. He didn't want anyone to fight. He wanted peace for the world. He had a dream that white children and black children would hold hands some day. Martin Luther King Jr. got shot by James Earl Ray in 1968. He was sentenced to go to prison for 99 years. Ray died four years later. This is how Martin Luther King Jr. changed the world."
• Daily Herald staff writers Melissa Silverberg, Mick Zawislak, Harry Hitzeman, Larissa Chinwah and Christopher Placek contributed to this report.