Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” Speech

by Tim Bailey

Unit Overview

This unit is part of the Gilder Lehrman Institute’s Teaching Literacy through History resources, designed to align to the Common Core State Standards. These units were developed to enable students to understand, summarize, and analyze original texts of historical significance. Through a step-by-step process, students will acquire the skills to analyze and assess primary source material.

Over the course of five lessons, students will read, analyze, and gain a clear understanding of “I Have a Dream,” a speech delivered by Martin Luther King, Jr., at the March on Washington on August 28, 1963. The first four lessons require students to read excerpts from the speech “like a detective.” Through summary organizers, practice, and discussion, they will master the technique of identifying key words, creating summaries of document sections and, as an assessment in the final lesson, writing an argumentative essay.

Unit Objectives

Students will be able to

  • Read and demonstrate understanding of a complex document
  • Identify the main ideas and synthesize and draw logical inferences from the document
  • Summarize the author’s words and restate the author’s meaning in their own words
  • Write an argumentative essay using evidence from the document to support their ideas

Number of Class Periods

The unit is structured for 5 class sessions, but Lessons 1 and 2 can be combined and Lessons 3 and 4 can be combined. In addition, the essay could be assigned as a take-home exercise.

Grade Level(s)

7–12

Common Core State Standards

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RH.9-10.1: Cite specific textual evidence to support analysis of primary sources, attending to such features as the date and origin of the information.

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RH.9-10.2: Determine the central ideas or information of a primary source; provide an accurate summary of how key events or ideas develop over the course of the text.

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RH.9-10.4: Determine the meaning of words and phrases as they are used in a text, including vocabulary describing political, social, or economic aspects of history/social studies.

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RH.9-10.5: Analyze how a text uses structure to emphasize key points or advance an explanation or analysis.

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.WHST.9-10.4: Produce clear and coherent writing in which the development, organization, and style are appropriate to task, purpose, and audience.

Historical Background

On August 28, 1963, approximately a quarter million people converged on Washington, DC. They came from all over the United States to demand civil and economic rights for African Americans. Many traveled for days—and at great personal risk—to participate. The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom was one of the largest political rallies in history. There were fears of violence, but the huge crowd remained peaceful as they marched from the Washington Monument to the Lincoln Memorial.

The last speech of the day was given by the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. King drew on history—including the Declaration of Independence’s promise of equality and Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation—to highlight how far African Americans were from reaching the American ideal. He urged his audience to demand equal opportunities and access to jobs and facilities and housing and voting. But what transformed the speech into one of the most memorable in American history for the millions of Americans watching and listening in Washington, on radio and on television, was the recurring phrase “I have a dream,” repeated eight times with increasing urgency—a dream of what could happen in the nation as well as a more intimate dream of what his own children could achieve when freedom rang everywhere in the United States.

Lesson 1

Overview

Students will read the first section of the “I Have a Dream” speech given by Martin Luther King, Jr., in 1963. In a step-by-step process they will identify key words employed by King and then summarize the text to demonstrate that they understand what King was saying.

Objectives

Students will be able to

  • Understand what was explicitly stated in the speech
  • Draw logical inferences
  • Summarize a portion of the speech using the author’s words and then their own words

Materials

Procedure

Note: The first lesson is done as a whole-class exercise.

  1. Tell the students that they will be exploring what Martin Luther King, Jr., said in the “I Have a Dream” speech at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in 1963. Resist the temptation to provide more information as you want the students to develop ideas based solely on King’s words.
  2. Read aloud the excerpts from the “I Have a Dream” speech by Martin Luther King, Jr., and ask the students to read it silently to themselves. It is important for the students to experience a text as the writer meant it to be experienced—in this case as a speech before a large crowd.
  3. Tell the students that they will be analyzing the first selection from the document today and learning how to do in-depth analysis for themselves. The whole class will be going through this process together for the first section of the document.
  4. Pass out Summary Organizer #1, which includes the first section of the speech. Display the organizer in a format large enough for the whole class to see. Make certain students understand that the original text has been edited for this lesson. Explain the purpose and use of ellipses.
  5. “Share read” the text with the students. This is done by having the students follow along silently while you begin to read aloud, modeling prosody, inflection, and punctuation. Then ask the class to join in with the reading after a few sentences while you continue to read aloud, still serving as the model for the class. This technique will support struggling readers as well as English language learners (ELL).
  6. Explain that the objective is to select “Key Words” from the first section and then use those words to create a brief summary of the text that gets at the gist of what Dr. King was saying.
  7. Guidelines for Selecting Key Words: Key Words are very important contributors to understanding the text. They are usually nouns or verbs. Don’t pick “connector” words (are, is, the, and, so, etc.). The number of Key Words depends on the length of the original selection. This selection is 249 words long so you can pick up to ten Key Words. The students must know what their Key Words mean, so there will be opportunities to teach students how to use context clues, word analysis, and dictionary skills to discover word meanings.
  8. Ask the students to select up to ten words from the text that they believe are Key Words and write them down on their organizers.
  9. Survey the class to find out what the most popular choices were. After some discussion and with your guidance, the class should decide on ten Key Words. For example, let’s say that the class decides on the following words: freedom, Emancipation Proclamation (two words that together make up a single idea can be selected if it makes sense in context), hope, Negro, segregation, discrimination, shameful, Declaration of Independence, promise, and unalienable rights. Now, no matter which words the students had previously selected, have them write the words agreed upon by the class or chosen by you into the Key Word list.
  10. Explain that the class will use these Key Words to write a brief summary (one or two sentences) that demonstrates an understanding of what King was saying. This exercise should be a whole-class discussion-and-negotiation process. For example, “The Emancipation Proclamation brought hope, but segregation and discrimination are still part of Negro life. That is shameful because the Declaration of Independence promised all people unalienable rights.” You might find that the class doesn’t need some of the Key Words, which will make the summary even more streamlined. This is part of the negotiation process. The final sentence(s) should be copied into the organizer.
  11. Now guide the students in putting the summary sentence(s) into their own words. Again, this is a class negotiation process. For example “African Americans were promised the same rights as everyone else, but that hasn’t happened yet.”
  12. Wrap up: Discuss vocabulary that the students found confusing or difficult. You could have students use the back of their organizer or a separate vocabulary form to make a note of these words and their meaning.

Lesson 2

Overview

Students will read the second section of the “I Have a Dream” speech given by Martin Luther King, Jr., in 1963. In a step-by-step process they will identify key words employed by King and then summarize the text to demonstrate that they understand what King was saying.

Objectives

Students will be able to

  • Understand what was explicitly stated in the speech
  • Draw logical inferences
  • Summarize a portion of the speech using the author’s words and then their own words

Materials

Procedure

Note: For this lesson, the students will be working with partners and in small groups.

  1. Review what the class did in the previous lesson and what they decided was the gist of the first selection from King’s speech.
  2. Distribute Summary Organizer #2 and display a copy in a format large enough for the whole class to see. Tell the students that they will work on the second section of the document with partners and in small groups.
  3. Share read the second selection with the students as described in Lesson 1.
  4. Review the process of selecting Key Words, writing a summary of the text using those words, and then restating the summary in their own words to show their understanding of King’s words.
  5. Pair the students up and have them work together to select the best Key Words. This passage is 258 words, so they can choose up to ten words.
  6. Now put two pairs of students together. These four students will negotiate with each other to come up with their final ten Key Words. Be strategic in how you make your groups in order to ensure the most participation by all group members.
  7. Once the groups have selected their Key Words, each group will use those words to create a brief summary (one or two sentences) of what Martin Luther King was saying. During this process, try to make sure that everyone is contributing. It is very easy for one student to take control and for the other students to let them do so. All of the students should write their group’s negotiated sentence into their organizers.
  8. Ask groups to share out the summary sentences that they have created. This should start a teacher-led discussion that points out the qualities of the various responses. How successful were the groups at getting at King’s main idea, and were they careful to use the Key Words in doing so?
  9. Now direct the groups to restate their summary sentences in their own words. Again, this is a group negotiation process. After they have decided on a summary, it should be written into their organizers. Again, have the groups share out their responses and discuss the clarity and quality of the responses.
  10. Wrap up: Discuss vocabulary that the students found confusing or difficult. If you choose you could have students use the back of their organizer or separate vocabulary form to make a note of these words and their meaning.

Lesson 3

Overview

Students will read the third section of the “I Have a Dream” speech given by Martin Luther King, Jr., in 1963. In a step-by-step process they will identify key words employed by King and then summarize the text to demonstrate that they understand what King was saying.

Objectives

Students will be able to

  • Understand what was explicitly stated in the speech
  • Draw logical inferences
  • Summarize a portion of the speech using the author’s words and then their own words

Materials

Procedure

Note: For this lesson students will work individually unless you decide they still need the support of a group.

  1. Review what the class did in the previous two lessons and what they decided was the gist of the first two selections.
  2. Distribute Summary Organizer #3 with the third selection from King’s speech. You may decide to share read the third selection with the students as in prior lessons or have them read it silently to themselves.
  3. Review the process of selecting Key Words, writing a summary using the key words, and then restating the summary in the students’ own words to demonstrate their understanding of King’s words. This text is 237 words, so the students can pick up to ten words.
  4. After the students have worked through the three steps, have them share out their summaries in their own words and guide a class discussion of the meaning of the text.
  5. Wrap up: Discuss vocabulary that the students found confusing or difficult. If you choose you could have students use the back of their organizer or a separate vocabulary form to make a note of these words and their meaning.

Lesson 4

Overview

Students will read the fourth section of the “I Have a Dream” speech given by Martin Luther King, Jr., in 1963. In a step-by-step process they will identify key words employed by King and then summarize the text to demonstrate that they understand what King was saying.

Objectives

Students will be able to

  • Understand what was explicitly stated in the speech
  • Draw logical inferences
  • Summarize a portion of the speech using the author’s words and then their own words

Materials

Procedure

Note: Students will continue to work independently in this lesson.

  1. Review what the class did in the previous lessons and what they decided was the gist of the first three selections.
  2. Distribute Summary Organizer #4 with the fourth selection from King’s speech. You may decide to share read the text with the students as in prior lessons or have them read it silently to themselves.
  3. Review the process of selecting Key Words, writing a summary using the key words, and then restating the summary in the students’ own words to demonstrate their understanding of King’s words. There are 224 words in this selection, so the students can select eight or nine key words.
  4. After the students have worked through the three steps, have them share out their summaries in their own words and guide a class discussion of the meaning of King’s words.
  5. Wrap up: Discuss vocabulary that the students found confusing or difficult. If you choose you could have students use the back of their organizer or a separate vocabulary form to make a note of these words and their meaning.

Lesson 5

Overview

The class will first review the meaning of each section of Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. Second, the students will look closely at how Dr. King constructed his speech, particularly his choice of words. Finally, they will write about Dr. King’s speech in a short argumentative essay in which they support their statements with evidence taken directly from Martin Luther King’s own words.

Objectives

Students will be able to

  • Synthesize the work of the prior four days
  • Demonstrate an understanding of the meaning of the primary source
  • Analyze the writing craft (speech construction, rhetorical style)
  • Explain and defend whether they believe the craft and style makes the speech more effective
  • Write an argumentative essay based on evidence in the text 

Materials

  • Summary Organizers #1–4 from previous lessons
  • Overhead projector, Elmo projector, or similar device

Procedure

  1. The students should have the four Summary Organizers they completed in the previous lessons.
  2. Review the work from the previous lessons by asking the students to provide a summary in their own words of each of the four text selections. This is done as a class discussion. Write these short negotiated sentences on the overhead or similar device so the whole class can see them. These summaries should reinforce the students’ understanding of the meaning of King’s speech.
  3. Discuss with the students Dr. King’s rhetorical style as well as how the construction of the speech affects its meaning. How does repeating certain phrases strengthen his point or focus his arguments? How does the construction help guide the audience?
  4. If the students do not have experience writing an argumentative essay, proceed with a short lesson on essay writing. Otherwise, have them write a short essay in response to one of the prompts in class or as an out-of-class assignment. Remind the students that they must back up any arguments they make with evidence taken directly from the text of King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. The first prompt is designed to be the easiest.

Prompts

  1. What is Martin Luther King, Jr.’s dream, and according to Dr. King how could it become a reality?
  2. In his speech Dr. King says that “we have come to our nation’s capital to cash a check.” What does he mean by this and what, as he sees it, will be the result of this action?
  3. In his speech, how does Dr. King respond to the question, “When will you be satisfied?” Explain both the reason for this question put to civil rights activists and Dr. King’s response.

Make Gilder Lehrman your Home for History


Already have an account?

Please click here to login and access this page.

How to subscribe

Click here to get a free subscription if you are a K-12 educator or student, and here for more information on the Affiliate School Program, which provides even more benefits.

Otherwise, click here for information on a paid subscription for those who are not K-12 educators or students.

Make Gilder Lehrman your Home for History


Become an Affiliate School to have free access to the Gilder Lehrman site and all its features.

Click here to start your Affiliate School application today! You will have free access while your application is being processed.

Individual K-12 educators and students can also get a free subscription to the site by making a site account with a school-affiliated email address. Click here to do so now!

Make Gilder Lehrman your Home for History


Why Gilder Lehrman?

Your subscription grants you access to archives of rare historical documents, lectures by top historians, and a wealth of original historical material, while also helping to support history education in schools nationwide. Click here to see the kinds of historical resources to which you'll have access and here to read more about the Institute's educational programs.

Individual subscription: $25

Click here to sign up for an individual subscription to the Gilder Lehrman site.

Make Gilder Lehrman your Home for History


Upgrade your Account

We're sorry, but it looks as though you do not have access to the full Gilder Lehrman site.

All K-12 educators receive free subscriptions to the Gilder Lehrman site, and our Affiliate School members gain even more benefits!

How to Subscribe

K-12 educator or student? Click here to edit your profile and indicate this, giving you free access, and here for more information on the Affiliate School Program.

Not a educator or student? Click here for more information on purchasing a subscription to the Gilder Lehrman site.

Discussion

This is an impressive lesson plan, especially in that it encourages students to unpack the language and the message of Martin Luther King's speech of August 28, 1963. However, I would have liked for the speech itself to have been labeled throughout the lesson as "The March On Washington Speech," which offers neutrality and lessens the steering that is implicit in the label, "I Have A Dream Speech." That aside, this is a stellar lesson plan that may be applied to a variety of disciplines.


Thank you for the compliment and the suggestion. We will certainly discuss your recommendation and consider making the change.

Sasha


The lessons succinctly outlined in this mini-unit provide a perfect entry point into speeches and argument for my students who need more scaffolding in order to successfully unpack such a dense text. Thank you for creating and sharing it!


This is a great lesson, and easily revised for different grades and ability levels. One thing that would be an excellent addition is a rubric for writing the essay.


Add comment

Login or register to post comments