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From “I Have A Dream” to “I Dream of a World”: Steps to Creating a Sanctuary Classroom*

December 8, 2016

Karsonya Wise Whitehead, Ph.D.



Intended Audience: 1st-12th grades (lesson plan can be adapted for selected grade level)

Overview: Less than sixty years ago, our country operated under a system of legalized segregation and oppression. Schools were separate and unequal and we had two nations—one black and one white—one oppressed and the other free. Even though any challenge to the system was met with resistance there was a growing collective that was crying out for change and was willing to challenge and confront the system in both the courtroom and in political and social spaces. While lawyers like Thurgood Marshall, Constance Baker Motley, and Elaine Jones worked within the system to change the laws, Civil Rights leaders like Dorothy I. Height, Bayard Rustin, and Fannie Lou Hamer found ways to use their social power to mobilize people to work within their organizations to bring about change. While college students were sitting down at counters in North Carolina, high school students were sitting down in classrooms in Little Rock, Arkansas. And while nonviolent resistance was the battle plan for black and white foot soldiers throughout the South, unchecked violence, mass arrests, and murder were the primary responses of white Southern politicians and police officers.

America, chiefly in cities throughout the South, was separated and deeply divided. It was an extraordinary time where leadership was a burden and jail time, particularly during the Birmingham Children’s March, was seen as a rite of passage. From that tumultuous time, where black people were fighting to have their right to vote be protected, to today where a black man has now been elected twice to the highest office in our country, our American society has drastically changed — and some of our young people feel very disconnected from the historical events. In some ways, the question is not “How do we teach young people about the Civil Rights Movement” but rather “What do we teach young people about the Civil Rights Movement.” And, it is not “How do we tell them about the leaders from this time” but rather, “How do we let these leaders speak for themselves and tell their own stories.” In order for young people to fully connect with the past they need to be completely engaged with, and feel connected to, the stories. Students must learn that the stories of the past have shaped their present reality and are the tools by which they can create their future. We are now at this place again where we must teach young people about tolerance, about the importance of sharing and hearing all stories, and about the need for having a sanctuary classroom in which to do all of this. This lesson plan is designed to use Dr. King’s “I Have A Dream” speech to engage our students in a broader conversation about the need for a sanctuary classroom.

Scope and Sequence: The lesson begins with a broad contextualization of some of the key events that shaped the focus and planning of the March on Washington. Students will examine video(s), photos, and text to interpret the historical context of this time period. With this context in mind, students will then work together to create a Mission Statement for their sanctuary classroom.

Historical Thinking Standards (National Standards for U.S. History)

Standard 3: Historical Analysis and Interpretation

Common Core State Standards

English Language Arts Standards » History/Social Studies » Grade 6-8

English Language Arts Standards » History/Social Studies » Grade 9-10

English Language Arts Standards » History/Social Studies » Grade 11-12


  1. Examine, analyze, and evaluate some of the key events that took place during the modern Civil Rights Movement.
  2. Review and synthesize Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech.
  3. Write and edit a sanctuary classroom Mission Statement to post in their classroom.

Essential Questions

  1. What was the important message behind the “I Have a Dream” speech?
  2. What is the importance of the sanctuary classroom?
  3. Why is it important to collectively write a sanctuary classroom Mission Statement?

Recommended Class Times: Although the support materials can be used to extend the teaching time up to 75 minutes, the lesson plan was designed for a 45-50 minute class period.

Lesson Structure: These lessons use the “close reading” teaching strategy and the Iceberg Theory, and are designed to help students clearly understand and fully engage with the content. The goal is to equip them with the foundational training that they need to participate in critical conversations about the material. Using these two strategies, students will enter into, and become engaged with, the content A(bove), B(eneath), and at the B(ottom) of the Water:

Step One: when students work “Above the Water,” teachers activate prior knowledge in an effort to determine what the students know about the modern Civil Rights Movement and about the leaders, what they understand about the March on Washington, the modern Civil Rights Movement, and what they have learned about the impact of the Movement on American history. At this level of engagement, teachers are focused on making sure that their students are actively thinking and working to connect this new information with their prior knowledge.

Step Two: when students work “Beneath the Water,” they are introduced to the readings, discussions, and primary sources about Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. It is at this level of engagement that students will work very closely with the material and teachers are then focused on helping students to examine, analyze, and understand this new material.

Step Three: once students reach the “Bottom of the Water,” they will begin to integrate, apply, expand upon, and demonstrate an understanding of the new material. Students will work together to create a list of values that can be used to write their joint Mission Statement for use in creating a sanctuary classroom. At this final level of engagement, teachers want to ensure that students have effectively infused this material into their knowledge bank.


Each word includes the standard Merriam-Webster definition and a link to an example that demonstrates the word.

Boycott: to engage in a concerted refusal to have dealings with or do business with a person, store, organization to express disappointment or force a change in conditions.

In 1963, in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, one of the first documented bus boycotts happened when the black citizens boycotted the bus system for eight days. Historians believed that this boycott inspired the Montgomery Bus Boycott.

Civil Disobedience: During the Civil Rights Movement, civil disobedience was one of the primary methods of nonviolent resistance that was used to challenge racism and legalized segregation. It is an active refusal to obey certain laws, demands, and commands that support the system.

In April 1963, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) organized the Birmingham Campaign to protest racism and racial segregation. After being arrested and in response to a letter from white clergyman who suggested that outside leaders should not be involved in events happening in Birmingham, Dr. King, with the help of Rev. Wyatt T. Walker, released his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.”

Civil Liberties vs. Civil Rights: Often confused, our civil liberties and our civil rights are built upon one another but are not the same thing: our civil liberties grant us freedom from arbitrary governmental interference, specifically by denial of governmental power and in the United States especially as guaranteed by the Bill of Rights and our civil rights are the rights of personal liberty guaranteed to United States citizens by the 13th (abolished slavery) and 14th (provides equal protection under the law) Amendments to the Constitution and by acts of Congress.

Civil Rights Act of 1964: It is the nation’s benchmark civil rights legislation that prohibited discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex or national origin and effectively ended the system of legalized segregation that had been in place since the 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson case. Although President John F. Kennedy initially proposed the Act during the summer of 1963, it was actually pushed through Congress and signed into law by President Lyndon Baines Johnson, .

Civil Rights Movement: From 1954-1972, the modern Civil Rights Movement was a national political and social movement, designed to challenge and change the American system of legalized segregation. Using nonviolent forms of resistance, the campaign took places in various cities throughout the South, in social and public spaces, and in the courtroom.

Desegregate: to eliminate segregation in any law, provision, or practice requiring isolation of the members of a particular race in separate units.

In 1954, after a series of unsuccessful challenges to the 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson case, the United States Supreme Court (USSC) ruled that legalized system of segregation in the school system was inherently unequal. One year later, the Court ruled that schools needed to integrate “with all deliberate speed.”

Racial Discrimination: the act of treating someone, an employee, an applicant, or a student, unfairly because they possess characteristics of a specific race, as in hair texture, skin color, facial features or they are married to someone who does. This is often confused with color discrimination, which only pertains to the color of a person’s skin.

Freedom Riders: Starting in May 1961, several civil rights activists, “the Freedom Riders,” rode interstate buses in segregated cities throughout the South to challenge the local and federal government’s decision not to enforce the Supreme Courts ruling in the Morgan v. Commonwealth of Virginia (1946) and the Boynton v. Virginia (1960) cases that segregated buses were unconstitutional. At almost stop, the Freedom Riders were attacked, beaten, and in some cases arrested.

Jim Crow Laws: At the end of the American Reconstruction (approximately 1876), a series of state and local laws were enacted across the country mandating and legalizing de jure segregation in all public facilities in the South. In the North, segregation was primarily de facto and happened in housing, bank lending practices, and in job discrimination.

Protest Marches: In addition to a series of local protest marches, the modern Civil Rights Movement held three large-scale marches on the Mall in Washington D.C.: the 1957 Prayer Pilgrimage for Freedom, which is considered to be the first official large demonstration of African Americans; the 1963 March on Washington (Dr. King spoke at both of these marches); and, the 1970 Kent State/Cambodian Incursion Protest, which was held a week after the Kent State incident to protest both that and President Richard Nixon’s incursion into Cambodia.

Segregation: the separation or isolation of a race, class, or ethnic group by enforced or voluntary residence in a restricted area, by barriers to social intercourse, by separate educational facilities, or by other discriminatory means. Segregation has its roots in both the 1857 Dred Scott v. Sanford case, which ruled that since black Americans could not be citizens then they had no rights that whites were bound to respect, and the 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson case, which ruled that separate facilities could be established for white and black Americans as long as they were equal.

Voting Rights Act of 1965: Less than one-year after the passage of the Civil Rights Act, President Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act, which prohibited discrimination in voting, into law. It extended and protects the rights guaranteed under the 15th Amendment, which prohibits the federal and state government from denying a citizen the right to vote.

Lesson Plan


  1. (Time Permitting) Before students walk into the classroom, place a colored square on their desk, face down. Each square should have a different word written on it. Since the words should connect to the central theme, “We Dream of a Classroom With…”. Word choices could include: love, happiness, togetherness, sisterly love, brotherly love, admiration, all voices included, equality, justice, freedom, political power, safety, green spaces, clean air, safe spaces, dignity, respect, pride, opportunities, manifest digitization, peace, unity, YOU (“you” should be written on at least four-five of the cards).

Depending upon the grade level, teachers can also pass out the index cards (or construction paper) once students have gotten settled in their seat.

  1. Lecture Blast: Once students are seated, tell them that approximately fifty years ago (1963) on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, half a million black and white Americans came together in support of a dream: the dream of building and creating a better America. They had come from all over the country, in cars, on trains, on buses, and in some cases, on foot to bear witness and be present at this historic moment that fundamentally shaped our society. The Civil Rights Movement, as a whole, consisted of a series of moments that, when taken together, make up our American quilt.

Depending upon the grade level, either pass out the attached photos (Primary Source Package) or project images onto the screen.

  1. Tell them that they are going to examine Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech to talk about the power of collective agreement. They are going to do some critical thinking, close reading, open discussion and then create a paper quilt and develop a collective Mission Statement.
  2. Activate prior knowledge by asking students to share what they know about the Civil Rights Movement and Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech.

Depending upon the grade level of your students, this can range from a few things to an entire list. If need be, once students reach seven-ten events, have them begin to define each of these moments. Use the time to clear up any misconceptions that students may have about these moments.

  1. After the class discussion, post the list of events where students can add to them. Have them read the following selection from Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech:

I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.”

I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.

I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.

I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.

Depending upon your classroom, students can either read the quotes or watch Dr. King’s speech.

  1. Once the students have finished reading (or listening to) the speech, have them take a moment to discuss whether or not they think we have achieved Dr. King’s dream. Have the students write their answers first, and then share them in either small groups or in a whole group discussion.

Class Discussion

  1. Tell the students to take a moment to think about what it means to have a “dream” and be willing to work hard for it. Ask them whether or not they have dreams and then have them think about the difference between an individual dream and a collective dream.
  2. Tell the students about the importance of collective agreement and that when people heard Dr. King’s speech, they were charged with trying to live out the creed and apply it in their own lives. Tell them they are going to do something similar so that they can transform their classroom into a sanctuary space.
  3. Outline for the students the reasons for, what a sanctuary classroom is, and why it is important to create one. Note the following key points:
    1. Sanctuary classrooms create a sense of safety and inclusion for all.
    2. They help to develop an understanding of what it means to seek sanctuary by dispelling negative myths and creating an open environment.
    3. They open up the space to provide for learning opportunities around human rights, social justice, diversity and interdependence.
    4. They are designed to increase student voice and agency, and to promote active citizenship.
  4. Ask them to think about the key points and add any other reasons why they think it is important.

Time permitting (and depending upon the grade level): have students watch Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Ted Talk on “The danger of a single story” and to explore why it is important to have a classroom where all voices are included.

Class Assignment

  1. Tell students that they are going to work together to outline the Mission Statement. Have them think about this and reflect (either on paper or out loud) on why this is important.
  2. Working collectively, students should develop a list of values related to your classroom space (limit to five).
  3. Depending upon your classroom, they can either work together to transform the list of values into a Mission Statement or you can create it for them.
  4. Once completed, post the Mission Statement in your classroom and make a copy of it for each student. Ask each student to take it home, think about it, and then be prepared to sign it (if they agree with what is written).
  5. Moving forward, students should be told that every time the Mission Statement is violated, they must come back together and discuss the key points and then agree on them again (or adjust them, if need be).


  1. Students should then be instructed to turn over their post cards and finish the sentence. Depending upon their grade level: they can either share their word out loud and place it on the board to build a Collective “We Dream of a Classroom . . . ” Postcard Quilt Or take a moment to reflect on it in their journal and then share and add to the classroom Quilt.


  1. Depending upon the grade level, students can watch the entire “I Have a Dream Speech” and think about their Mission Statement and whether anything should be added to it. For younger students, they should be encouraged to share their Mission Statements with their parents for discussion and engagement.

Selected Bibliography


Cowan, Jane K. “Culture and Rights after “Culture and Rights“” American Anthropologist 108 (2006): 9-24. JSTOR.

Gaines, Kevin. “The Civil Rights Movement in World Perspective.” OAH Magazine of History 21 (2007): 57-64. JSTOR.

Hill, Walter B., Jr. “Researching Civil Rights History in the 21st Century.” The Journal of African American History 93 (2008): 94-99. JSTOR. Web. 23 Sept. 2013.

Jalata, Asafa. “Revisiting the Black Struggle: Lessons for the 21st Century.” Journal of Black Studies 33 (2002): 86-116. JSTOR.


A Testament of Hope: the Essential Writing of Martin Luther King, Jr. Edited by James M. Washington. San Francisco: Harper, 1990.

Bennett, Lerone Jr. Great Moments in Black History: Wade in the Water. Chicago: Johnson Publishing Company, Inc., 1979.

Davis, Townsend. Weary Feet, Rested Souls, A Guided History of the Civil Rights Movement. New York: Norton, 1999.

The Eyes on the Prize Civil Rights Reader: Documents, Speeches, and Firsthand Accounts from the Black Freedom Struggle, 1954-1990. Edited by Clayborne Carson, David J. Garrow, Gerald Gill, Vincent Harding, and Darlene Clark Hine. New York: Viking, 1991.


Civil Rights Timeline

The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights

The White House: Civil Rights

U.S. Commission on Civil Rights

US Department of Health and Human Services


Images from the March on Washington, 1963


*A version of this lesson plan was originally prepared for both McDonogh School and the Black Quilted Narratives program. It is reprinted here with permission from the author.

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