Teaching Nonviolence through Biography


I am from St. Louis and the events of the past week have literally hit close to home for me.  As an educator I know that we have an obligation to talk to our students about the events surrounding the conflict in Ferguson and I believe it is an opportunity to teach valuable lessons from the stories of history.

We have an amazing heritage of historical heroes who have enacted great change through nonviolent actions.  Martin Luther King Jr., Nelson Mandela, Mahatma Gandhi, and Jane Addams are just a few of the names that come to mind.  By studying their lives and stories we can equip young people with the tools they need to affect positive change in this world without violence or destruction.

mlkspeechNonviolence is a powerful and just weapon,
which cuts without wounding and ennobles
the man who wields it. It is a sword that heals.
Martin Luther King, Jr.


I hope the following lesson plan will help you teach the value of nonviolence and the truth of Dr. King’s words.

Unit: Leaders in nonviolence
Grade level: 4-8
Time: at least three 45 minute class periods

Lesson Objective:  Students will read informational texts to compare the history of nonviolence in social change.  They will work together to create a classroom presentation about leaders of three different nonviolent movements.

Common Core
RI.5.1 Quote accurately from a text when explaining what the text says explicitly and when drawing inferences from the text.

RI.5.2 Determine two or more main ideas of a text and explain how they are supported by key details; summarize the text

RI.5.3 Explain the relationships or interactions between two or more individuals, events, ideas, or concepts in a historical, scientific, or technical text based on specific information in the text

RI.5.9 Integrate information from several texts on the same topic in order to write or speak about the subject knowledgeably

Books and research materials on Martin Luther King Jr., Gandhi, and Nelson Mandela. Pencil Paper, guided learning sheet, poster board, markers
Suggested websites:

Martin Luther King Jr.

Jane Addams

Nelson Mandela

Mahatma Gandhi


Divide your class into small study groups and assign each group one of the leaders to study.   Each group will need to be able to answer the following questions:

  1. Where and when did your leader live?
  2. What were the problems in their world?
  3. What was the problem your leader wanted to solve?
  4. How did he/she try to fix the problem?

Tell the students they will use the information to make a poster to present to their class.  Allow at least two class periods for research and poster construction.

Have students present their posters to the class. After the presentations ask students to discuss the following questions.

  1. What is the difference between a violent protest and a nonviolent protest?
  2. What kind of protest did Addams, Mandela, Gandhi and King believe in?
  3. How did they work for change in their governments?
  4. Were they successful?
  5. What could you do to change something that you felt was unfair?


2 thoughts on “Teaching Nonviolence through Biography

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