How Big Are Martin's Big Words? Thinking Big about the Future

3 - 5
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Estimated Time
50 minutes
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Martin's Big Words: The Life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., a Caldecott Honor book, Coretta Scott King Honor book, and an Orbis Pictus Award winner, tells of King's childhood determination to use "big words" through biographical information and quotations. Using this book as well as other resources on Dr. King, students explore information on King's "big" words. They discuss both the literal and figurative meanings of the word “big” and how they apply to Dr. King's words. They read an excerpt from Dr. King's "I Have a Dream" speech and note the “big” words.  Students then choose one of two options: (1) they write about their own "big" words and dreams in stapled or stitched books, or (2) they construct found poems using an excerpt from one of King's speeches.

Featured Resources

From Theory to Practice

To talk about Dr. King's life is to talk about terrible things: racism, bombings, murders, assassination. Yet it is also to discuss wonderful things: love, peace, harmony, pride, determination. What do we tell children about the "bad" things in the world? How can we "give [them] hope... provide [them] with reasons to embrace life and its possibilities" (Stanley 41)?

Ultimately, Stanley resolves, "Education is the only solution that I know to these dilemmas. Education, understood not as technique or training, not as schooling, but as part and parcel of 'the engagement of being human,' i.e., the shared act of making meaning of meanings inherited from others" (41).

Following the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, the NCTE Executive Committee issued a statement that concluded similarly: "We assert that the long-term response to violence and cruelty-indeed the only truly effective response-is education, an education in which social justice and the dignity of all people are held paramount."

In this activity, students focus on this kind of educational goal. Through an exploration of Dr. King's use of nonviolent protest and the power of words as a weapon for social justice, students learn more about Dr. King's life and think about their own impact on the future. And by turning from King's words to their own hopes for the future, the activity specifically highlights hope for the future.

Further Reading

Common Core Standards

This resource has been aligned to the Common Core State Standards for states in which they have been adopted. If a state does not appear in the drop-down, CCSS alignments are forthcoming.

State Standards

This lesson has been aligned to standards in the following states. If a state does not appear in the drop-down, standard alignments are not currently available for that state.

NCTE/IRA National Standards for the English Language Arts

  • 1. 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.
  • 11. Students participate as knowledgeable, reflective, creative, and critical members of a variety of literacy communities.
  • 12. Students use spoken, written, and visual language to accomplish their own purposes (e.g., for learning, enjoyment, persuasion, and the exchange of information).

Materials and Technology

  • Books and other resources on Dr. King. A booklist can be found at the Cincinnati Public Library. If available, be sure to include Martin's Big Words: The Life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. by Doreen Rappaport (Hyperion Books for Children. 2001).
  • Internet access to King's "I Have a Dream" speech, or printed copies of the speech.
  • Internet access to handouts or printed copies for each student.
  • Connected devices for use with the Word Mover tool (optional)




    1. Collect resources on Dr. King that are appropriate for your students. Some useful online resources are included in the Websites section. Be sure to review them to ensure they are appropriate for your students.
    2. Practice reading Martin's Big Words aloud, if you are using the book. Dr. King's words have a particular rhythm, and you'll read the book better if you've had a chance to familiarize yourself with it.
    3. Arrange for computer access or copies of the handouts.
    4. Review the Word Mover tool if that option will be used in the lesson.

      Student Objectives

      Students will:

      • read (or listen to stories) about Dr. King's life and think about their own impact on the future.
      • identify the different meanings of the word "big" as it relates to the idea of "big words."
      • analyze sample quotations for "big" words.
      • think reflectively about personal dreams and ideas and create a list of their own "big words" either originally or as a found poem.

      Instruction & Activities

      1. Either as a whole class activity or in small groups, read books or online resources on Martin Luther King, Jr.'s life chosen from the resource lists. If available, conclude your exploration by reading Martin's Big Words to the whole class.
      2. Talk about the difference between a word's literal meanings (its denotations) and figurative meanings (its connotations). In Martin's Big Words, the book's author, Doreen Rappaport, quotes King's resolve as a child: "When I grow up, I'm going to get big words, too." Either after reading Rappaport's book or exploring Dr. King's speeches online, talk about the defintion of "big." Dr. King's "big" words are not always so large in length as they are in importance: Freedom, Peace, Love, and so on.
      3. Distribute copies of the "I Have a Dream" speech or show the speech on a computer screen or overhead projector. Read the second paragraph of the speech (the "fivescore years ago" passage) aloud, asking students to follow along on their copy.
      4. Ask students to read the paragraph to themselves, noting the "big" words in the passage. Tell students that they will share their lists with the class.
      5. Read the paragraph aloud again to help students think about the sound of the words before sharing from their lists.
      6. Ask students to share the "big" words they found in the speech. Write the words on the board or overhead. Discuss with students why they have chosen the words that they have and why they consider the words "big."
        More Practice
        If your students need more practice identifying "big" words, divide them into groups and ask each group to focus on a different paragraph in the "I Have a Dream" speech (or another speech). Circulate among groups and monitor student progress. Provide individual help as necessary. After students have had time to complete their lists, have each group share their list of words. Note in particular words that show up on more than one group's list.
      7. When you are confident that students understand the concept behind "big" words, ask students to create their own list of big words—either creating found poems using Word Mover to choose words from an excerpt of Dr. King's "I Have a Dream" speech, or working independently to build a book about their own "big" words. When students have finished creating either the found poems or their books, give them the chance to share their work with the rest of the class.
        • Found Poems
          • Share the example found poems and original excerpt from which it was drawn with the class.
          • Have students look at the passages from the"I Have a Dream" speech that are within the app (by choosing "I Have a Dream" and then refreshing the word bank, as necessary).
          • Instruct students to convert the prose passage into a poem by deleting words and playing with line breaks. Students can use the "I Have a Dream" Found Poem Word Mover to arrange words into a variety of different poems, or they can write their different versions out on paper.
          For more information, see the Found Poems/Parallel Poems lesson plan.
        • Independent Lists
          • Have students begin by brainstorming a list of words that are meaningful to them, a list of their own "big" words. If students need additional help, you might share a list of Dr. King's quotations that they can use for inspiration.
          • Once students have a list of words, have them choose the five words on the list with the "biggest" meaning for them. Each student's list will be different—and each will be right. This is a personal list.
          • Once students have narrowed down the list, they need to think about their reasons for choosing each word. Provide the following example:
            One of Dr. King's "big" words is love, which he has used in the quotation, "Hate cannot drive out hate. Only love can do that" [emphasis added].
          • For each of their five words, ask students to think of or compose a short sentence that demonstrates why the word is important to them.
          • Explain the template for the "My Big Words" book. Students type their name on the first page. On the following five pages, they type their big word and the related sentence or quotation. On the final page, students can create their own conclusion to the book—they might list all the words as on the final page of Martin's Big Words, for instance.
          • Once students understand the template, they either type the information on the pages if working online or write on printed copies. If working online, have students print out their work once they've typed in their text.
          • When the text is finished, students cut out the individual pages.
          • Once all the pages are finished, staple the pages together, or stitch the pages together with needle and thread (see the Web Resources section for details on stitching a book together).
          • Once the books are assembled, students can draw illustrations on the backs of each page. Explain that illustrations will pair with the quotation on the facing page. You can use pages from Martin's Big Words to demonstrate illustrations facing pages of text. The last page of Martin's Big Words provides an example of this layout (with the picture on the left side and the words on the right side.


      Student Assessment / Reflections

      The "big" words that students choose can't be assessed easily. A word that seems "big" to one person may seem quite unimportant to another. The best way to assess students' work on this project is first to see that they've finished the task, and second to base feedback on students' reflection on the project:

      1. Ask them to write a reflective paragraph that talks about their choices. Ask them to explain how they chose the words that they did for the found poems, or why they chose the five words that they did for the books.
      2. Ask students to submit their finished work and any notes they've taken. From this material you'll be able to see how the students chose their "big" words.
      3. As you review their work, focus your feedback on the connections between the words that they chose and the reasons that they chose them. Students whose reflections show close connections between their choices and their explanations have demonstrated an understanding of the underlying concepts of the lesson. Students who can't explain their choices may not yet understand the concept of "big" words.

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