Teaching Human Rights: Resources, Benefits, And Guiding Questions

contributed by Chris Buckley, Featured Teacher In The Speak Truth To Power Master Class Series

When I am asked what I teach, my general response is not that I teach history or social studies; my days in the classroom are centered on teaching students.

This approach to teaching is the legacy of the teachers who had the most significant impact on my career, both as a student and a professional. These teachers focused their energies on shaping me as a person by teaching me to be a more empathetic and engaged person.

The teachers and professors whose classes I sat in spent time to help me grow as a person rather than simply measuring my command of content. Professionally, the colleagues I respect most see their students as individuals who are capable of reason and introspection, regardless of age.

These teachers are human rights educators even though many of them did not teach about the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the tragedies that define genocides such as the Holocaust, or the many activists who have bravely stood up for those whose voices were silenced or ignored. These individuals are teachers who do more than educate about: these individuals use their classrooms to educate for human rights.

Human rights education builds awareness and understanding of the basic rights shared by all people: These principles are outlined in documentation from the United Nations and its affiliated associations. There are three distinct approaches to human rights education: education about, through, and for human rights.

In 2011, the United Nations General Assembly adopted Resolution 66/137 which outlined human rights education as modelling these three tenets of Human Rights Education. While the youngest members of the global community should be taught about their rights and should have the opportunity to learn about the individuals who have stood up in the face of inequality, their educational experiences should be facilitated by individuals who model these principles themselves.

Teachers who treat their students with dignity and respect represent the ideal of education through human rights. Most importantly, students should leave their classrooms empowered with the skills to exercise their rights as active and engaged members of their society so that when they are faced with instances of inequality, they are prepared to protect their rights as well as the rights of others. Teaching young people the skills of advocacy and engagement in the application and protection of their rights and the rights of others is education for human rights.

The resources included in RFK Human Rights’ Speak Truth to Power program provides me with more than the curricular tools to include human rights education into my classroom; the guiding principles of the initiative provided me the language to articulate the ideas that have been at the heart of my teaching philosophy.

The resources included in the Speak Truth to Power program connect Robert F. Kennedy’s ideal of a ‘ripple of hope’ to specific practices designed to teach students not only about current human rights violations and the people who are fighting to protect the rights and dignity of their fellow man but also the skills necessary to become activists themselves.

Speak Truth to Power shares the stories of Human Rights Defenders around the world, and provides teachers with standards-aligned resources and professional development tools, like the Master Class Series, to incorporate human rights education in the classroom in a way that is relatable and engaging for students.

The Master Class Series highlights the importance of human rights education and different methods through which they can be included into classrooms and school buildings. The ideas of three of these RFK Lead Educators help to frame the benefits of human rights education.

Three Benefits Of Including Human Rights Education In Class

1. Prepare students to own their future

“As an educator, my job isn’t to change my students’ minds, but to give them a wide lens to view the world, and empower them to make their own decisions.” – Christopher Buckley, Social Studies Teachers at Brookfield High School

The College, Career and Civic Life (C3) Framework for Social Studies State Standards was developed to give state education leaders a strategy to strengthen social studies programs.

The C3 is driven by five guiding principles:

  • Social studies prepares the nation’s young people for college, careers, and civic life
  • Inquiry is at the heart of social studies
  • Social studies involves interdisciplinary applications and welcomes integration of the arts and humanities
  • Social studies is composed of deep and enduring understandings, concepts, and skills from the disciplines. Social studies emphasizes skills and practices as preparation for democratic decision-making
  • Social studies education should have direct and explicit connections to the Common Core State Standards for English Language Arts

As a social studies teacher, Mr. Buckley realized that the C3 framework aligns with the principle of education for human rights education in many ways. The content found in Social Studies curriculums helps students understand the purpose of why they’re here. A thorough command of the events that define a student’s local, state, national, or international community allows them to add context to the perspectives held by those around them.

In being exposed to education about specific events, students are presented with building blocks that can make them empathetic, engaged, and active members of their communities. This concept is at the heart of the C3 Standards, whether a student is considering a path to higher education or the professional world.

Students exposed to the principles of human rights by teachers who embody the principles themselves can bring their experiences into new classrooms or the workplace, creating more inclusive and supportive environments for the next generation of learners.

Human rights toolkits have helped Mr. Buckley successfully translating the importance of including human rights education across subject areas to administrators. The connection between the education for human rights and the C3 Standards provides a powerful connection to the importance of the skills inherent to teaching human rights across all grade levels and disciplines.

For Mr. Buckley, Speak Truth to Power’s educator resources have been helpful in facilitating productive conversations with both colleagues and students.

2. Make learning authentic

“In my classroom, it’s happy chaos. It’s loud, creativity is happening and learning is happening.” –Estella Owoimaha-Church, Theater Director at Hawthorne High School

Estella Owoimaha-Church’s instruction is led by ‘mirrors and windows.’ a phrase initially coined by Emily Style as part of the National SEED Project. As explained by WeAreTeachers, a mirror is a story that reflects your own culture and helps you build your identity. A window is a resource that offers you a view of someone else’s experience.

Ms. Owoimaha-Church uses human rights-based activities to make learning authentic, relatable and engaging for all of her students.

“Children deserve to see themselves in everything they study, and gain an opportunity to view others in an authentic way,” explained Owoimaha-Church. “Giving students the whole picture and context during class, and making sure they see themselves, their history and their heritage in a story is an important part of being a teacher.”

According to Ms. Owoimaha-Church, “the power and motivation to be inquisitive and curious about the world comes from within, and it can only happen when students feel connected to the learning process. When learning is authentic, students will be resilient and push through challenges.”

Ms. Owoimaha-Church also uses the rules of improv comedy to guide the learning process:

  1. Don’t Deny
  2. Watch Each Other’s Backs
  3. Make Sure Everybody Looks Good

Using those tenets, students are encouraged to trust and respect one another, and ensure everyone’s voice is heard and elevated. Each year, students produce a play, ‘Speak Truth to Power: Voices From Beyond the Dark’. The show focuses on several Human Rights Defenders, sharing each person’s story.

“Each Defender has gone through tremendous struggle, and sometimes that can trigger past trauma and pain because students can relate. But, those narratives also help inspire students to make a difference,” said Owoimaha-Church.

Human rights education is a powerful way to make interdisciplinary connections. For example, a science teacher could embed the story of Wangari Maathai, founder of the Green Belt Movement, in a lesson about environmental and social justice.

“It doesn’t matter what subject you teach, as a teacher your job isn’t just to teach the content, it’s to serve kids,” said Ms. Owoimaha-Church. “Whether it’s in math, science or English, students should feel whole, loved and safe in the classroom – and free to be themselves.”

3. Bring empathy to education

“By definition, social work is a human rights profession, but to train our social workers to be Human Rights Defenders, we need to give them the skills to do so.” – Dr. Robin DeLuca-Aconi, Adjunct Professor at Stony Brook University School of Social Welfare

The Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning (CASEL) breaks social emotional learning (SEL) into five core competencies: self-awareness, social awareness, self-management, responsible decision-making and relationship skills.

These skills are all important to thrive in the workplace, school and other levels throughout society. Dr. Robin DeLuca-Aconi knows this well, and embeds lessons of SEL and human rights to prepare social workers for the real world.

“At the end of the day, it’s not enough to just talk about compassion and love, you also need the skills to get the job done,” said Dr. DeLuca-Aconi. “It’s not enough to say ‘just play nice’, you need the skills to make it happen.”

Dr. DeLuca-Aconi uses the stories of Human Rights Defenders as an introduction to human rights. “The narratives of Defenders are powerful and inspiring, and make important connections for students.”

Each Human Rights Defender is connected to United Nations human rights treaties, conventions and laws, with each Defender being attributed to what right they’re defending.

“I have each student select a Defender whose story speaks to them, and ask them to connect which SEL competencies that Defender used to make their achievement possible,” said Dr. DeLuca-Aconi. “For example, Malala had to use social and self-awareness to overcome significant adversity, and I think it’s important that students make that association.”

Dr. DeLuca-Aconi has students sit in a circle during class, which helps facilitate more ‘human’ conversation. “Students are understanding each other’s experiences, and have an opportunity to walk in someone else’s shoes – I’m not teaching them, I’m awakening them to have empathy for other people’s experiences.”

7 Sample Questions For Teaching Human Rights

Here’s are a few sample questions for teaching human rights from one activity:

  • What is meant by the word ‘privilege?’ What is meant by the word ‘bystander?’ How are these words related? How can we use our privilege to protect the human rights of others?
  • What impact has technology had on the fight for human rights around the world?
  • What role does an ‘us vs. them’ mentality play in the violation of human rights?
  • Why is caring the one of the most important parts of defending human rights?

The Human Rights Defenders who’ve partnered with Speak Truth to Power are models that students can learn from. These Defenders are real people, my kids can write to them and it’s very likely they’ll hear back. My students were working on a project about child labor, and wrote an email to Defender Kailash Satyarthi, and were able to Skype with him. That’s something those kids will remember forever.

Human rights are inherent to a person’s identity and being, not something that should be given to you or taken away by governing authorities. Teaching human rights not only helps kids to recognize their individuality and power, but is also about teaching them to be able to talk to people with differing opinions, it’s about equipping students with the ability to have a human conversation.

Launch human rights in your classroom 

Human rights education engages and empowers students, helping them to recognize and value their own power in making a difference, as they become the next generation of human rights defenders.

Additional Resources For Teaching Human Rights

*previously published at TeachThought.com

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