Martin Luther King Jr. had a dream, and so do fourth-graders at the Joyanne D. Miller School in Egg Harbor Township.

“I have a dream that all the bullies will stop and that we can all be friends and not enemies or bullies,” wrote Julian Arroyo.

“I would stop pollution in all the oceans in the world,” wrote Sean Ireland.

“I would stop wars from happening,” wrote Tina Ta.

Most schools will be closed today for the King holiday, but before they left, many area students took time to learn why the slain civil-rights leader is worthy of a national holiday — and how they might apply his message to their own lives.

It’s not always an easy message to convey, especially for younger children unfamiliar with blatant racial discrimination. Some teachers said they will do more during Black History Month projects or during their study of the Civil Rights movement, when they can put events more in context.

Locally, some classes read the famous “I Have a Dream” speech and discussed its message. Others considered what America might be like had he not stood up for equality and peace. And a few put his message into action, with service projects at their schools or in their communities.

The New Jersey core curriculum standards for social studies mention King twice, first at the elementary level — when by the end of fourth grade, students are expected to learn about how King and other civil-rights leaders were catalysts for social change and inspired social activism in subsequent generations.

“This is the age when they do start to become more aware of those issues,” said Adrien Levinson, a fourth-grade teacher at the Joyanne Miller School in Egg Harbor Township who did a “Peacemakers” project with her students. They watched a short movie, then wrote one big world problem they would solve if they could, and one local thing they could do in their home, school or community to be peacemakers.

In high school, students are asked to compare King’s leadership, ideology and legacy with that of Malcolm X as part of their study of the civil-rights movement.

But that typically isn’t part of the school curriculum in January, and it can be confusing for students to suddenly switch time periods in history.

At the Northfield Community School, social studies teacher Mary Ann Devine took a break from her seventh-graders’ study of the Louisiana purchase in 1803 to learn about King. She asked them to write about what America might be like today if he had done nothing.

“One student referred to him as a native American,” Devine said.

Teachers also look for ways to incorporate King into other lessons. The Phoenix Middle School team at Southern Regional Middle School read and listened to the “I Have a Dream” speech, then discussed the insight, figurative language, and persuasive writing and speaking tactics that help make the speech so memorable.

At the Sovereign Avenue School in Atlantic City, seventh- and eighth-grade social studies teachers introduced the civil-rights movement last week. The language arts teachers will have students write speeches about their own dreams for the future, and this week they will interview each other about those dreams, Principal Media Peytoncq said.

The holiday has also become a National Day of Service. About 700 students at Richard Stockton College have registered to spend today working on 20 public service projects on campus and throughout Atlantic County in what has become an annual kickoff to the spring semester.

Miller School teachers John Jonescq and Colin McClain will head up a work project at the Egg Harbor Township Community Garden on West Jersey Avenue.

Contact Diane D’Amico:

609-272-7241