Students take part in Martin Luther King Jr. essay project for holiday

When 13-year-old Caleb Knollman looks around his classroom, he doesn’t see anyone of a different color, but the words of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. still resonate strongly with him and his classmates.

Knollman, a sixth-grader at Immanuel Lutheran School in Seymour, said he believes it’s important to listen to and understand what King was saying as he fought for the freedom, dignity and equality, not just of blacks, but of all races and people.

“He tried to open people’s eyes and say, ‘Hey, this is what we need to do,'” Knollman said.

On Tuesday, a day after the nation celebrated the life and legacy of the man who had a dream, Immanuel sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders delved deeper into what King stood for and reflected on the bigger picture of the civil rights activist’s words.

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King was most known for his use of nonviolent resistance and civil disobedience to oppose racial inequality and later expanded his focus to include poverty and war. Most people have heard of King’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech.

He was assassinated on April 4, 1968, in Memphis, Tennessee, and Martin Luther King Jr. Day was established as a federal holiday in 1986.

For the past decade, Immanuel students have taken part in the Indiana Association of School Principals’ annual Martin Luther King Jr. Essay Contest.

Each year, the association’s Department of Student Programs chooses a different quote from King for the contest.

This year’s quote is: “An individual has not started living until he can rise above the narrow confines of his individualistic concerns to the broader concerns of all humanity.”

Students are asked to write how they feel about the quote, what it means to them and how they can use the words to honor King and the life he lived.

Using laptop computers, they began researching King on Tuesday to find out more about his life and about the context of his words.

It was the first time for Knollman and classmate Kaylie Burns to write about King.

“To me, it feels like what he is trying to say is before you think about yourself, think about everything your life is,” Knollman said. “Think about someone else. Think about the world. Think about the problems that others have. Don’t just dwell upon yourself.

“There are more people in this world, and it really doesn’t matter that we have different colors,” he added. “We still need to be one. We need to be together.”

Knollman compared King’s life to the golden rule.

“Treat others as you want to be treated,” Knollman said.

What King stood for then was “a big deal,” and it still is today, Burns said.

“He changed history for everyone,” she said. “He stood up for what is right.”

Essays are limited to 450 words and are judged on content and development as well as language and mechanics. Only five essays can be submitted to the state contest. Immanuel has had students place in the top three in the state in years past, said teacher Charlie Smith.

The contest is open to all Indiana students in Grades 6 through 12. Awards are given to the top three essay writers in two age groups — sixth through eighth and ninth through 12th grades.

Smith said students have until Feb. 6 to turn in their work to him, and he and fellow teacher Sandra Franke will choose the top five to submit for the state contest. Those winners will be announced in mid-April.

First place will receive $500, second place gets $300 and third place gets $200.

He said writing the essays is a good way for students to understand a little bit more about King, especially since it focuses on a different quote each year.

“It’s not something we talk about every day,” Smith said.

He hopes students gain a better understanding of the differences people have and how those differences do not make them less but how diversity makes us stronger.

“I think it gives them a little bit more in-depth knowledge of what (King’s) goals were,” he said.

Those goals have not been met yet by Americans, and that is why it’s important to study King and keep his memory alive, Smith said.

“I think we’re still working on that goal, just trying to work together, overcoming differences,” he said. “That may be color, religion, political differences. But we’re still American, so we’re working toward that. God created us all equal, so we’re still working on that.”

Seventh-grader Dylan Peters said this year’s quote was longer and more difficult to write about.

He thought the quote meant people need to have more humility and not get caught up in judging someone for their race or how popular they are.

“He changed a lot of people’s minds around about what they think about other people and how they are treating certain people and what they are doing to them,” he said. “He made sure people knew what others were going through. That takes a lot of bravery.”