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Class Of Dreams: Students Take On Dr. King's Legacy


This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Celeste Headlee. Michel Martin is away. Many thousands of people are expected to attend a commemoration of the March on Washington this weekend. It's the 50th anniversary of the iconic moment in civil rights history when Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his "I Have a Dream" speech from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. Coming up, we'll talk to one writer who explains how Asian-Americans have benefited from the struggle for civil rights of African-Americans.

But first, we'll hear about bringing that moment to life for an entire class of dreamers. All summer long we've asked you to give us your "I Have a Dream" speech for the present day. Using the #mydream on Twitter, we got responses from all over the world. But Notre Dame Professor Maria McKenna took it to another level. She pitched this question in her class that's focused on the minority experience in American education. And Professor McKenna joins us now, welcome.

MARIA MCKENNA: Thank you very much for having me.

HEADLEE: We're going to hear some of your students in their own voice but I wanted to read this one from an anonymous student. And here it is, quote - I have hopes that one day LGBT persons can stand side-by-side with the person who worked with them and fought with them for equal treatment and protection, diplomas in hand, and celebrate their survival of hard times in the face of discrimination and marginalization at the university. Similar to what is called Black Graduation, I hope to see Queer Graduations. What does it say that this student chose to remain anonymous?

MCKENNA: I think this student worked to be incredibly brave in sharing some of her most innermost thoughts about her identity, the identity of the other students on our campus and the identity of students across our country. And she did so in our classroom because she felt safe and had established a rapport. But her desire to be anonymous in her submission, more generally speaking, reflects the hesitation or the lack of trust that still exists for many people in the world.

HEADLEE: And, of course, she's talking about an issue which has been so much in the headlines - tragically, kids who don't survive high school because of bullying over their gender and sexual orientation. So obviously, again, this is an issue that reflects back to 50 years ago, when we're talking about life-or-death stakes.

MCKENNA: You're absolutely right. I think there are so many moments in the educational discourse of our country where we really tend to underestimate the heartbreak or the difficulties that some students experience in our educational system - be that academic or social or emotional.

Many of the students in this class, whether it be through their readings or their writing or their conversations with one another, came to recognize the primacy of relationships and some of the heartache that can happen when those relationships are marginalized.

HEADLEE: I wonder, what kind of common threads or themes did you get from the students?

MCKENNA: You know, it was a beautiful thing to listen to these students present their work because there was this moment that was a kind of aha moment for them, where they really did see similar themes coming through their work. And if I had to categorize them, they really were about the fundamental need for human beings to be connected to one another and to really understand that they are cared for and valued, whether it be in a school, in their neighborhood or in their communities.

HEADLEE: We're talking about a group of kids who've grown up celebrating Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday as a national holiday. That happened in the '80s. They're driving down streets that are named after Dr. King. Some of them may have gone to high schools named after Dr. King. How difficult was it for you to teach Dr. King as an actual living, breathing person as opposed to this sort of iconic figure they'll see in statues?

MCKENNA: You know, you bring up a really good question because the truth is that they don't know Martin Luther King as anything but an iconic figure in many cases. And so with the students in this class and with the students that I teach in general, the idea of demystifying King's legacy is really important.

Having them recognize that throughout our history in the United States, there are countless numbers of heroes and heroines that are part of the civil rights movement and the civil rights legacy. So it is a challenge to make sure that students recognize this and see their own possible voice in that conversation.

HEADLEE: Well, we selected a couple key passages from your students' responses. We wanted to begin with a student named Bright Gyamfi.

BRIGHT GYAMFI: I begin to scream, I have a dream. I have a dream in which classrooms become a place where expressions can easily flow, whether it is through music or art. But then I come to the reality that this dream is slowly diminishing away as these electives are being cut out from our school programs. But then I tell myself, all I can do is to remain hopeful.

HEADLEE: This is a theme - what he's talking about is education and its importance to him. How often did your students talk about education as a personal journey? I mean, he sounds emotional about what's being offered for him in class.

MCKENNA: You know, I think every one of these students was emotional because this assignment was personal. It was me asking them what their dream about education was. And when they really went back and worked on this, many of them came back and said this is one of the hardest one-page assignments I've ever done.

And it really became a place where they could recognize the value of education, and not just education in terms of accountability or standards or tests, but thinking about education more broadly. What does it mean to learn? What does it mean to be a citizen in the collective?

HEADLEE: Were they often - Bright Gyamfi there seems torn. He's not sure whether to be in despair or be hopeful and optimistic. Was that also common?

MCKENNA: I do think this is a common theme. These are young men and women who have gone through school in an era of immense accountability. And when we're talking about education, many of the things that they are hopeful about were not present in their own educations.

HEADLEE: If you're just joining us, we're speaking with Notre Dame Professor Maria McKenna. She asked her students in her Minority Experience and American Education class to write out their own "I Have a Dream" speeches. And here's another excerpt from one of your students talking about her dream. This is Kate Bowie.

KATE BOWIE: There's this dream I believe. All races, genders, orientations and classes, enjoying the same education when resources depend not on your income or taxes. So let's change our schooling practices, end this boredom and frustration. Stop the endless discrimination. We want school, sheer exploration.

HEADLEE: That definitely - Kate there is actually channeling a number of the themes from the original "I Have a Dream" speech, 50 years ago. What kind of reflection do they have on what has and hasn't changed in the past half-century?

MCKENNA: You know, these students are confronted with the challenge of both recognizing the progress of the last 50 years and reconciling that with the work we still have to do as a nation, whether it's about education or race or equality in any number of areas.

HEADLEE: So you are woman who has spent, what, more than a decade in the higher education just...

MCKENNA: ...Yes...

HEADLEE: ...Getting your degrees, right?

MCKENNA: ...Yes, absolutely.

HEADLEE: So you must have thoughts about what you want for education. What is your dream?

MCKENNA: My dream is bigger than just education. My dream is really that we recognize children as the cornerstone of society and that adults in the United States and around the world recognize that children have voices that are important. They see the world in ways that, as adults, we sometimes can't or don't. And I think we would be wise to look and listen and attend to our children in a way that really valued who they are and what they think about the world around them.

HEADLEE: Notre Dame Professor Maria McKenna. She assigned her students to write their own "I Have a Dream" speeches in commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington. She was kind enough to join me from a studio there on campus. Professor McKenna, thank you so much.

MCKENNA: It's been my pleasure. Thank you for highlighting this momentous event. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.