What can one little person do?

For teachers, this time of year is a challenge: How can kids learn that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. wasn’t just a dreamer, and civil rights was never a foregone conclusion?

At Wissahickon Charter School on the border of East Falls and Germantown, students work in racially mixed classrooms and come to these subjects from a four-decade generation gap. While the school focuses on peace, conflict resolution and community service as matters of mission, taking true ownership of the lessons about King’s life and times is still something special.

During the last several weeks, every class in the K-8 school has been looking into King and civil rights. The work is building to a two-day school presentation that will feature meetings with civil-rights activist and Nicetown resident Kenneth Salaam.

In the 1960s, Salaam was called “Freedom Smitty.” He dropped out of high school to join the civil rights movement when he was 14, and in 1966 he marched across Mississippi with King. In 1965 he was in the first wave when Cecil B. Moore attempted to go over the wall at Girard College and force the school’s integration. He was arrested 20 times in the ensuing seven-month, non-violent stand off with police.

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Leslie Leff’s fourth-grade class decided that, before meeting a guy such as this, the students should really, truly learn something about those times, to know it by heart. 

They decided to go about learning through song.

Specifically, they took everything they’ve learned about the times Salaam, King and so many others struggled through and used it to write their own verse to the Sally Rogers folk song, “What can one little person do?” – as in, to change the world. They plan to perform it at this week’s school assembly.

It’s a skill Salaam might really appreciate.

Through all the marches and demonstrations and all the clashes with police, King and others knew Freedom Smitty for his ability to make up freedom songs right there on the spot. He could make the words fit whatever circumstance the group was facing at the moment so that singing about it helped them get through it.

Watch the video above to see what these ‘little’ fourth grade people decided they can do to change the world.

For more on Wissahickon Charter School click here.

The video below shows 8th graders at work getting ready for the MLK assembly.

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