Learning Empathy through History

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Music students at Robbins Lane Elementary School have been studying the music of the Civil Rights Movement to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the death of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. 

One of the most memorable songs they learned was “We Shall Overcome,” a gospel song that evolved into a prominent anthem for the movement. Students studied the lyrics using a Smithsonian historical recording from 1964. Each student wrote a special verse of their own for the song, including Jeremy Schlenoff, whose personal lyric read, “We shall all have joy!” Students shared and performed their composition with their classmates.

Students also read the Caldecott-winning “Martin’s Big Words,” a stirring picture book that teaches empathy and the power of being an upstander. As a follow-up exercise, they shared 10 ways to be an upstander and learned how to “keep their empathy radars up” by sitting with new friends at lunch, celebrating ways in which each person is unique, and using kind, positive words. 

Additional audio recordings, books and poems, as well as excerpts from Dr. King’s speeches, were also used as resources for these activities, which were led by Robbins Lane music teacher Dr. Catherine da Silva.