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

by Tim Bailey

Unit Objective

This unit is part of Gilder Lehrman’s series of Common Core State Standards–based teaching resources. These units were written to enable students to understand, summarize, and analyze original texts of historical significance. Students will demonstrate this knowledge by writing summaries of selections from the original document and, by the end of the unit, articulating their understanding of the complete document by answering questions in an argumentative writing style to fulfill the Common Core State Standards. Through this step-by-step process, students will acquire the skills to analyze any primary or secondary source material.

While the unit is intended to flow over a five-day period, it is possible to present and complete the material within a shorter time frame. For example, the first two days can be used to ensure an understanding of the process with all of the activity completed in class. The teacher can then assign lessons three and four as homework. The argumentative essay is then written in class on day three.

Lesson 1

Objective

Students will be asked to “read like a detective” and discover what Martin Luther King Jr. was talking about in his “I Have a Dream” speech, given on August 28, 1963, at the March on Washington, by knowing what is explicitly stated, drawing logical inferences, and demonstrating these skills by writing a succinct summary using the author’s words and then restating that summary in the student’s own words. In the first lesson this will be facilitated by the teacher and done as a whole-class lesson.

Introduction

Tell the students that they will be learning about Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech, delivered on August 28, 1963, from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, DC. Resist the temptation to put the document into too much context. Remember, we are trying to let the students discover Dr. King’s message based solely on his words.

Materials

Procedure

  1. All students are given an abridged copy of Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech and then are asked to read it silently to themselves. Make certain that students understand that the original text has been edited for this lesson. Explain the purpose and use of ellipses.
  2. The teacher then “share reads” the document with the students. This is done by having the students follow along silently while the teacher begins reading aloud. The teacher models prosody, inflection, and punctuation. The teacher then asks the class to join in with the reading after a few sentences while the teacher continues to read along with the students, still serving as the model for the class. This technique will support struggling readers as well as English Language Learners (ELL).
  3. The teacher explains that the class will be analyzing the first part of the “I Have a Dream” speech today and that they will be learning how to do in-depth analysis for themselves. All students are given a copy of Summary Organizer #1. This contains the first selection from King’s address.
  4. The teacher puts a copy of Summary Organizer #1 on display in a format large enough for all of the class to see (an overhead projector, Elmo projector, or similar device) and explains that today the whole class will be going through this process together.
  5. Explain that the objective is to select “Key Words” from the first section and then use those words to create a summary sentence that gets at the gist of what Dr. King was saying in the first section of the document.
  6. Guidelines for Selecting Key Words: Key Words are very important contributors to understanding the paragraph. 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 paragraph. This selection is 249 words long so we can pick up to ten Key Words. The other Key Words rule is that we cannot pick words if we don’t know what they mean. As the class begins selecting words, there will be opportunities to teach students how to use context clues, word analysis, and dictionary skills to discover word meanings
  7. Students will now select up to ten words from the text that they believe are Key Words and write them in the box to the right of the text on their organizer.
  8. The teacher now surveys the class to find out what the most popular choices were. The teacher can either tally this or just survey by show of hands. Using this vote and some discussion, the class should, with guidance from the teacher, 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 used if it makes sense to do so 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 in their organizer.
  9. The teacher now explains that the class will use the Key Words to write a sentence (or two) that gets at the gist of what Dr. King was saying. This 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, and that is shameful because the Declaration of Independence promised all people unalienable rights.” You might find that the class decides they don’t need some of the Key Words chosen to make the summary even more streamlined. This is part of the negotiation process. The final negotiated sentence(s) should be copied into the organizer in the third section under the original text and Key Word sections.
  10. The teacher explains that the students will now restate their summary sentence in their own words, not having to use Dr. King’s words. Again, this is a class discussion-and-negotiation process. For example “African Americans were promised the same rights as everyone else but that hasn’t happened yet.”
  11. Wrap-up: Discuss vocabulary that the students found confusing or difficult. If you choose, you could even have students use the back of their organizers to make a note of these words and their meaning.

Lesson 2

Objective

Students will be asked to “read like a detective” and discover what Martin Luther King Jr. was talking about by knowing what is explicitly stated, drawing logical inferences, and demonstrating these skills by writing a succinct summary using the author’s and then restating that summary in the student’s own words. In this lesson the students will work with partners and in small groups.

Introduction

Tell the students that they will be further exploring what Dr. King was talking about in the second selection from his “I Have a Dream” speech by reading and understanding the speech and then being able to tell, in their own words, what was being said. Today they will work with partners and small groups in much the same way they worked as a whole class yesterday.

Materials

Procedure

  1. All students are given an abridged copy of the “I Have a Dream” speech and then are asked to read it silently to themselves.
  2. The students and teacher discuss what they did yesterday and what they decided was the gist of the first selection.
  3. The teacher then “share reads” the second selection with the students. This is done by having the students follow along silently while the teacher begins reading aloud. The teacher models prosody, inflection, and punctuation. The teacher then asks the class to join in with the reading after a couple of sentences while the teacher continues to read along with the students, still serving as the model for the class. This technique will support struggling readers as well as English Language Learners (ELL).
  4. The teacher explains that the class will be analyzing the second part of Dr. King’s speech today. All students are given a copy of Summary Organizer #2. This contains the second selection from the speech.
  5. The teacher puts a copy of Summary Organizer #2 on display in a format large enough for all of the class to see (an overhead projector, Elmo projector, or similar device). Explain that today they will go through the same process as yesterday but as partners and small groups.
  6. Explain that the objective is still to select Key Words from the second selection and then use those words to create a summary sentence that gets at the gist of what Martin Luther King Jr. was saying in the second section.
  7. The guidelines for selecting these words are the same as they were yesterday. This paragraph is the same length as the last one (249 words) so they can pick up to ten Key Words.
  8. Pair the students up and have them negotiate which Key Words to select. After they have decided on their words both students will write those words in the Key Words box on their organizer.
  9. The teacher now puts two pairs together. These two pairs go through the same discussion and negotiation process to come up with their Key Words. Be strategic in how you make your groups in order to ensure the most participation by all group members.
  10. The teacher now explains that the group will use their Key Words to build a sentence that summarizes what Martin Luther King Jr. was saying. During this negotiation process try to make sure that everyone is contributing, because it is very easy for one student to take control of the entire task and for the other students to let them do so. All of the students should write their group’s negotiated sentence into their organizer.
  11. The teacher now asks for the 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 attempts. How successful were the groups at getting at this selection’s main idea and were they very careful to only use the selection’s Key Words in doing so?
  12. The teacher explains that the group will now restate their summary sentence in their own words, not having to use Dr. King’s words. Again, this is a group discussion. After they have decided on a sentence it should be written into their organizer. Again, the teacher should have the groups share out and discuss the clarity and quality of the groups’ attempts.
  13. Wrap-up: Discuss vocabulary that the students found confusing or difficult. If you choose you could even have students use the back of their organizers to make a note of these words and their meaning.

Lesson 3

Objective

Students will be asked to “read like a detective” and discover what Martin Luther King Jr. was talking about by knowing what is explicitly stated, drawing logical inferences, and demonstrating these skills by writing a succinct summary using the author’s words and then restating that summary in the student’s own words. In this lesson the students will be working individually unless you think they need another day of additional support from a partner or small group.

Introduction

Tell the students that they will be further exploring what Dr. King was speaking about by reading and understanding the “I Have a Dream” speech and then being able to tell, in their own words, what he was saying. Today they will work by themselves on their summaries unless you have decided otherwise.

Materials

Procedure

  1. All students are given an abridged copy of the speech and then are asked to read it silently to themselves.
  2. The students and teacher discuss what they did yesterday and what they decided was the meaning of the first and second selections.
  3. The teacher then “share reads” the third selection with the students. This is done by having the students follow along silently while the teacher begins reading aloud. The teacher models prosody, inflection, and punctuation. The teacher then asks the class to join in with the reading after a couple of sentences while the teacher continues to read along with the students, still serving as the model for the class. This technique will support struggling readers as well as English Language Learners (ELL).
  4. The teacher explains that the class will be analyzing the third selection from the “I Have a Dream” speech today. All students are given a copy of Summary Organizer #3. This contains the third selection from the speech.
  5. The teacher puts a copy of Summary Organizer #3 on display in a format large enough for all of the class to see (an overhead projector, Elmo projector, or similar device). Explain that today they will go through the same process as yesterday but they will be working by themselves.
  6. Explain that the objective is still to select Key Word” from the third paragraph and then use those words to create a summary sentence that gets at the gist of what Martin Luther King Jr. was saying in the third selection.
  7. The guidelines for selecting these words are the same as they were yesterday. Again, due to the length of this paragraph (237 words), they can pick up to ten Key Words.
  8. Have the students decide which Key Words to select. After they have decided on their words they will write them in the Key Words box on their organizer.
  9. The teacher explains that each student will use the Key Words to build a sentence that summarizes what Dr. King was talking about. They should write the summary sentence into their organizer.
  10. The teacher explains that they will restate their new summary sentence in their own words, not having to use Dr. King’s words. This should be added to their organizers.
  11. The teacher now asks students 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 attempts. How successful were the students at understanding the gist of this section of Martin Luther King Jr.’s speech?
  12. Wrap-up: Discuss vocabulary that the students found confusing or difficult. If you choose you could even have students use the back of their organizers to make a note of these words and their meaning.

Lesson 4

Objective

Students will be asked to “read like a detective” and discover what Martin Luther King Jr. was speaking about by knowing what is explicitly stated, drawing logical inferences, and demonstrating these skills by writing a succinct summary using the author’s words and then restating that summary in the student’s own words. In this lesson the students will be working individually.

Introduction

Tell the students that they will be further exploring what Martin Luther King Jr. was saying in his “I Have a Dream” speech by reading and understanding the speech and then being able to tell, in their own words, what he was saying. Today they will be working by themselves on their summaries.

Materials

Procedure

  1. All students are given an abridged copy of the speech and then are asked to read it silently to themselves.
  2. The students and teacher discuss what they did yesterday and what they decided was the meaning of the first, second, and third selections.
  3. The teacher then “share reads” the fourth selection with the students. This is done by having the students follow along silently while the teacher begins reading aloud. The teacher models prosody, inflection, and punctuation. The teacher then asks the class to join in with the reading after a couple of sentences while the teacher continues to read along with the students, still serving as the model for the class. This technique will support struggling readers as well as English Language Learners (ELL).
  4. The teacher explains that the class will be analyzing the fourth selection from Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. All students are given a copy of Summary Organizer #4. This contains the fourth selection from the speech.
  5. The teacher puts a copy of Summary Organizer #4 on display in a format large enough for all of the class to see (an overhead projector, Elmo projector, or similar device). Explain that today they will be going through the same process as yesterday and they will again be working by themselves.
  6. Explain that the objective is still to select Key Words from the fourth selection and then use those words to create a summary sentence that gets at the gist of what Dr. King was talking about in this last selection.
  7. The guidelines for selecting these words are the same as they were yesterday. However, because this selection is somewhat shorter (224 words) they can select eight or nine Key Words.
  8. Have the students select their Key Words. After they have decided on their words they will write those words in the Key Words box of their organizer.
  9. The teacher now explains that they will use the Key Words to build a sentence that summarizes what this final part of the speech is about. The students should write their summary sentences into their organizers.
  10. The teacher explains that they will now put their new summary sentence into their own words, not having to use Martin Luther King Jr.’s words. This should be added to their organizers.
  11. The teacher now asks students 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 attempts. How successful were the students at understanding what Dr. King was speaking about?
  12. Wrap-up: Discuss vocabulary that the students found confusing or difficult. If you choose you could even have students use the back of their organizer to make a note of these words and their meaning.

Lesson 5

Objective

This lesson has three objectives. First, the students will synthesize the work of the last four days and demonstrate that they understand what Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech is about. Second, the students will analyze the writing craft of Martin Luther King Jr. by examining how the speech is constructed; of particular interest may be the rhetorical style used throughout the speech by Dr. King’s repetition of certain phrases, e.g., “I have a dream,” “We must,” “We cannot,” or “Let freedom ring.” Another point of analysis is to look at Dr. King’s construction of his speech. Did the students note that it goes from the past to the present and then to the future? How does this make the speech more effective? Third, the teacher will present prompts for a brief essay that require the students to make inferences from the text but also require them to support their conclusions with explicit information taken from the text.

Introduction

Tell the students that, first, they will review what Martin Luther King Jr. said in his “I Have a Dream” speech. Second, the students will look closely at how Dr. King constructed his speech by the choice of words used. Finally, they will write about Dr. King’s speech in a short argumentative essay. Remind the students that their conclusions must be backed up by evidence taken directly from Martin Luther King Jr.’s own words.

Materials

Procedure

  1. All students are given the abridged copy of the speech and then are asked to read it silently to themselves.
  2. The teacher asks the students for their best personal summary of selection one. This is done as a negotiation or discussion. The teacher may write this short sentence on the overhead or similar device. The same procedure is used for selections two, three, and four. When they are finished the class should have a summary of Dr. King’s speech in only a few sentences. This should give the students a way to state what the general purpose of this primary document was.
  3. Discuss with the students Dr. King’s rhetorical style as well as how the speech is constructed. How does repeating certain phrases strengthen his point or focus his arguments? How does the speech’s construction help guide the audience?
  4. The teacher can decide to have the students write a short essay in response to one of the following prompts at this time or, if the students lack enough experience in writing an argumentative essay, the teacher can do a short lesson on constructing an argumentative essay before having the students address one of the prompts. If this is the case, use the rest of this period instructing the students on how to write an argumentative essay and save the essay writing until the next class period. In either case, remind the students that any arguments that they make must be backed up with words taken directly from Martin Luther King Jr.’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.

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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.


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