MLK 8th graders work with Mahoning Valley Sojourn to the Past for Black History Month activity

YOUNGSTOWN — Martin Luther King Elementary School eighth-graders are working with Mahoning Valley Sojourn to the Past scholars on a Black History Month project.

February is Black History Month and each week, MLK eighth-graders and Sojourn members will read and discuss portions of “Dear Martin,” by Nic Stone.

The eighth-graders will discuss the book and do activities each Thursday and each Friday, they’ll continue the reading and discussion with Sojourn.

The novel tells the story of an African-American teen who is struggling with his identity and with issues at school. He tries to work out what he’s experiencing by writing letters to the late Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

MLK teachers and administrators believe the book has real-world applications for the scholars who will be reading it.

“As history teachers, we know that our history has direct correlations to our lives today, but oftentimes, scholars have a disconnect between our past and our present — and bridging that gap is what we strive for,” said Chris Stanley, a seventh and eighth-grade social studies teacher at MLK. “By implementing the Sojourn group and the reading of ‘Dear Martin,’ scholars will be able to explore how our past affects us today, including the exploration of what it means to be Black in America. The real-world relevancy of this topic to our scholars’ lives in 2021 could not be clearer, and I am looking forward to this worthwhile educational endeavor of questioning and exploration.”

Daniel Smith, who is MLK’s dean, agrees.

“This activity will allow scholars to discuss a topic that is important, impactful and often ignored,” he said. “I wanted scholars to read a book where they could see themselves and have a connection to the story. In addition, I feel the book is very powerful and appropriate for what’s going on in our country. After reading this book, I hope the scholars understand there will be obstacles in life but with determination they can succeed.”

Penny Wells, director of Mahoning Valley Sojourn to the Past, said the group is excited about reading “Dear Martin” with eighth-graders at the school.

“The culminating activity will be the scholars writing their own ‘Dear Martin’ letter,” she said.

Nikki Hanley, MLK’s assistant principal, hopes the book and the collaboration with Mahoning Valley Sojourn to the Past spark important discussions.

“This outreach and connection that our scholars are making with Sojourn, guided by Penny Wells, is giving our scholars and staff an opportunity to have those healthy crucial conversations around equality and social justice,” she said. “Our middle school scholars are going to connect with our high school representatives and develop ways to give their feelings a voice and find connections through their book study together.”

Each year, Mahoning Valley Sojourn to the Past takes high school scholars on a 10-day journey to Civil Rights sites across the South. They meet Civil Rights leaders and learn the lessons of the movement including justice, nonviolence, civic responsibility, hope, compassion, tolerance and not being a silent witness. The goal is for scholars to incorporate these lessons into their daily lives and become leaders for social justice and nonviolence in their schools and community.

Sojourn scholars initiated Ohio Nonviolence Week, which is observed across Ohio each October.

This year, the group which includes high school scholars from YCSD, researched, developed and presented anti-racism workshops to organizations and businesses, including several schools. The workshops bring awareness to the impact of racism, encourage participants to self-reflect about racism and enact changes in the policies of groups, organizations and clubs that have racist biases.