Pleasanton schools are closed today in recognition of King's birthday.
Teachers like Jamie Smith at Hart Middle School wanted to make sure students understand that the day is about a step toward unity and peace brought about by the civil rights movement -- and the steps that still need to be taken -- rather than just an extra day to hang out with friends.
Listening to the hardships and sacrifices Martin Luther King Jr. and other civil rights leaders endured for their cause, students in Smith's eighth-grade English class Friday learned about inequality in the world today.
"We've made some progress, but we still have a way to go," the Hart Middle School teacher said.
Students nodded their heads knowingly. They'd spent Tuesday's class period talking about leadership and how a good leader is kind to all. Some students talked about peaceful Sikh men being mistaken for violent men; the Occupy movement was brought up, referencing racial tension still alive 50 years after King's "March on Washington."
"I think (the civil rights movement) is relevant to our lives because as a world, we need to stand together on the issues that try to divide us," said 13-year-old Kyle Armstrong.
One student, 13-year-old Rishabh Raj, raised his hand. He sat just in front of classroom posters that described historical and literary examples of "tolerance" and "kindness."
"It's toward any sort of race," he said, making parallels between society in the 1960s and today, "Muslims, especially."
Throughout this week, Smith taught her sixth- and eighth-grade students about how King was the son of a pastor and what his life was like growing up, drawing on that humanizing lesson by asking her students about influential figures in their lives.
"I think it's really important to learn about a variety of really strong leaders," Smith said. "Unfortunately, sometimes kids only look to superstars as their heroes ... It's really amazing that when I go over his life, it's the first time some of them have had a lesson about his life."
She also used King's "I Have a Dream" speech as an example of persuasive writing, and students later will also analyze speeches by Winston Churchill and then write their own persuasive speeches.
"I want them to see the power of words -- since it's an English class," she said.
Toward the end of the classes, Smith looked at her students and implied a challenge.
"I wish we would have some people who would step up" as leaders, she said.
Some students said they wanted to be that change one day.
"When I grow up, I want to make a difference," said 13-year-old Jonathan Nunez. "Martin Luther King Jr., I admire him very much, and I want to do what he did."