For a history teacher, one of the easiest, yet most damning mistakes in teaching is to allow the history of the United States to become safe, sanitized, vanilla, and sloganized. I have never met a history teacher who wants to be credited with such an offense to the discipline; but, it does happen even to the most vigilant.
First, there are the teaching objectives: usually the lowest common denominator from a long, arduous committee process at the state level. Next is the earnest desire to not offend someone from among the broadest spectrum of cultures that teachers have ever faced in the same classroom in the history of American education.
The objectives can be dealt with easily after a few years of experience. It's that second factor that slowly, like dripping water, wears away at the U.S. history teacher. There comes a point where principals and teachers start to wonder about the worth of those battles with parents who just don't want some particular part of history to be taught.
That's the point when the history teacher can choose to keep actual people in history alive in the fullness of who they were rather than cardboard cutouts.
It is so much easier to play the end only of King's "I Have A Dream" speech and let students engage in a vacuous exercise such as writing a letter to him. About what? The inevitable questions surface:
"Who was that dude, again?"
"What was he dreamin' about?"
Other teachers, administrators, and curriculum supervisors will love it. It's just what anyone who has not taught history imagines is good history teaching. It plays well in meetings and the teachers' lounge over lunch.
But we know better.
Life, and so, history is untidy, uneven, often offensive to someone. That's why this audio of King's "A Knock At Midnight" is so much more appropriate and powerful to remember and use. It is confessional. It shows King, the man who fears for the lives of his wife and children. It reveals the fervent Christian who struggles with the call to faith and action. It also reveals the sheer brutality, violence, and, yes, evil that he faced day-to-day in a place where the ruling class had one "Christian" personna in the day, and entirely another at night.
History in all of it's fullness is far more interesting and engaging to our students, but far more irritating to others who want to twist it to fit their own current agendas.
It is the history teacher's job to keep untwisting history. Our students will be truly inspired to live full lives of meaning if we do. The cardboard cutout can stay in the closet.