Entering History: Nikki Giovanni and Martin Luther King, Jr.

Students read Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech in conjunction with Nikki Giovanni's poem "The Funeral of Martin Luther King, Jr." in order to better understand the speech and the impact it had both on observers like Giovanni during the Civil Rights Movement and on Americans today. After researching and writing quiz questions about the vocabulary and content of King's speech, students practice it orally before performing it readers' theater-style in front of an audience. Students synthesize their learning by writing reflections exploring various questions about King's dream in today's society, Nikki Giovanni's response, and ways to promote social change. Excellent strategy for compare/contrast. The readers' theater componet encourages students to speak in public.

Standards & Objectives

Learning objectives: 

Student Objectives:

Students will:

  • identify unfamiliar words and phrases in Martin Luther King, Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech.
  • define these unfamiliar words and phrases both denotatively and connotatively.
  • explain in their own words what the speech says.
  • write quiz questions about the speech for their peers and themselves.
  • read the speech orally.
  • demonstrate an understanding of the historical context of the speech and Nikki Giovanni's poem "The Funeral of Martin Luther King, Jr."
  • write reflectively about what they've learned about Martin Luther King, Jr., Nikki Giovanni, and/or Civil Rights in general.

NCTE/IRA National Standards For The English Langauge Arts:

  • Students read a wide range of print and nonprint texts to build an understanding of texts, of themselves, and of the cultures of the United States and the world; to acquire new information; to respond to the needs and demands of society and the workplace; and for personal fulfillment. Among these texts are fiction and nonfiction, classic and contemporary works.
  • Students apply a wide range of strategies to comprehend, interpret, evaluate, and appreciate texts. They draw on their prior experience, their interactions with other readers and writers, their knowledge of word meaning and of other texts, their word identification strategies, and their understanding of textual features (e.g., sound–letter correspondence, sentence structure, context, graphics).
  • Students adjust their use of spoken, written, and visual language (e.g., conventions, style, vocabulary) to communicate effectively with a variety of audiences and for different purposes.
  • Students employ a wide range of strategies as they write and use different writing process elements appropriately to communicate with different audiences for a variety of purposes.
  • Students conduct research on issues and interests by generating ideas and questions, and by posing problems. They gather, evaluate, and synthesize data from a variety of sources (e.g., print and nonprint texts, artifacts, people) to communicate their discoveries in ways that suit their purpose and audience.
  • Students use a variety of technological and information resources (e.g., libraries, databases, computer networks, video) to gather and synthesize information and to create and communicate knowledge.
  • Students participate as knowledgeable, reflective, creative, and critical members of a variety of literacy communities.
  • Students use spoken, written, and visual language to accomplish their own purposes (e.g., for learning, enjoyment, persuasion, and the exchange of information).

Lesson Variations

Blooms taxonomy level: 
Extension suggestions: 


  • If you wish to focus on the writing element of this lesson, allow time for students to workshop and revise their reflections. Arrange the class in groups according to which prompt they chose and guide them through a workshop, asking them to focus on specific areas such as purpose, organization, fluidity, and so forth. These reflections can be posted on a class Web site, around the classroom, or collected and bound together.
  • Introduce students to other writing by Nikki Giovanni and Dr. King. Some recommendations include Giovanni’s “Poem (No Name No. 3)”, “Poem for Black Boys (With Special Love to James)”, and “The Great Pax Whitie.” “Promised Land” is the speech Dr. King delivered the day before he was assassinated, and the letter he wrote while in jail in Birmingham, Alabama, also provides a great deal of historical context for students who are interested in learning more about the Civil Rights Movement. Some poems by Giovanni, as well as records of her reading her poetry, can be found at her Website.
  • For more classroom resources on Nikki Giovanni and Martin Luther king, Jr., see the calendar entries for January 15: Martin Luther King, Jr. was born in 1929,  August 28: Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech in 1963, and June 7: Poet Nikki Giovanni was born in 1943.


Helpful Hints

Materials and Technology:

  • An audio copy of Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech 
  • A hard copy of Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech 
  • Nikki Giovanni's poem "The Funeral of Martin Luther King, Jr.", which can be found in three texts: Black Feeling, Black Talk, Black Judgement; The Selected Poems of Nikki Giovanni; and The Collected Poetry of Nikki Giovanni
  • General classroom supplies such as pencils (preferably), paper, butcher paper, and markers 
  • Overhead projector or LCD projector 
  • Computer access
  • Tablet devices for student use of the Word Mover mobile app