Educating students for a more just and equitable world sounds idyllic. In reality, however, teaching students to think critically about racial, economic, and social injustices can lead to a host of difficult and controversial problems.

With the observance of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s holiday – and Black History Month fast approaching – it seemed like an ideal time to look specifically at how schools teach the life of Dr. King, in addition to how schools approach social-justice education overall in a way that’s authentic and represents all the complexities.

The Chicago teacher Gregory Michie says his lessons on the social-justice icon are designed to upend what he views as a simplistic and clichéd image often presented in schools. Since many of his students know King’s famous excerpt hoping for a day when no one is judged by the color of their skin, Michie’s social-studies class zeroes in on lesser-known sections of the “I Have a Dream” speech, like the “fierce urgency of now” and “tranquilizing drug of [white] gradualism.” The youngsters quickly realize that they’ve never really heard the full message of the speech, he said, and “it’s a lot more nuanced, and more fiery, than they’d thought.”

As the country observes the federal holiday named in King’s honor, it seems that schools are increasingly coming under sharp criticism from educators and activists for their approach to teaching King’s life. Some question a sanitized teaching of the black civil-rights movement, its leaders, and other struggles for social justice that denies students an accurate and complete account of history. These debates are complicated by the inherent professional dangers in teaching through a social-justice lens.

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