Pencils, check, Paper, check, . . . Human rights education?


The other evening, after searching for last year’s school binders and packing my kids’ backpacks with everything from Clorox wipes to globe-shaped pencil sharpeners, I thought about the millions of students who are returning to freshly painted hallways and overcrowded classrooms this fall. I had to wonder: Are they ready?

Not just ready with supplies, but ready with skills. By this, I mean, are they prepared to handle conflict? Are they ready to treat themselves and others with respect? Have our children achieved the fundamental proficiencies to be responsible members of their school communities? Are they ready to protect and promote their own human rights, and those of others?

We rightly put a good deal of emphasis on what we traditionally think of as academic skills, such as writing a five-paragraph essay and using the scientific method. Indeed, every good teacher is simultaneously combining content with skills that will help students in the next phase of their learning. When students used to ask me why they had to learn to FOIL (the standard method of multiplying two binomials) in algebra, for example, I didn’t tell them that solving such problems would be a baseline requirement for any job. Instead, I explained that learning the process helped to develop their analytical skills and could be used as a building block for more difficult math. (They still complained, but markedly less.)

Similarly, we must explicitly teach empathy, taking and sharing responsibility, conflict resolution, and critical thinking. Such skills are something I spend a lot of time thinking about, as they are one of the pillars of Human Rights Education (HRE). By definition, HRE helps individuals develop the knowledge, skills, and values to fully exercise and protect the human rights of themselves and others; fulfill their responsibilities in the context of universal principles; and achieve justice and peace in their communities and the world.

No small order, I know. There are, however, concrete skills that comprise this approach, and research shows us that HRE leads to higher student achievement, lower incidents of negative student behaviors (such as bullying), and higher rates of teacher satisfaction. In the long term, these skills contribute to an individual’s ability to hold a job, maintain healthy relationships, understand social issues and current domestic and international affairs, and most importantly, claim their rights and stand up for others.

A good model for incorporating such skills can be found in The Advocates’ newest edition of Energy of a Nation, our curriculum on immigration. Examples abound: kids learn how to constructively discuss politically charged or sensitive issues and the importance of giving such an issue proper historical and international context. They also learn to look for root causes and long-term solutions and seek out credible sources. In essence, the curriculum requires them to peel away rhetoric in search of real answers and teaches them what human rights are and how to apply these international standards to the experiences of individual lives.

The skills we espouse as part of Human Rights Education have a place in nearly any classroom. In order to help teachers with this, The Advocates provides professional development trainings and a library of free resources, including curricula, lesson plans, newsletters, links to related material for both teachers and students. It is, however, also up to parents, caregivers, child care providers, and the community as a whole. If we understand that we are preparing not only young minds, but truly young people, it is clear that the skills they need to be successful requires the best of who we are in order to prepare – and keep preparing – them year after year.

So, whether at school or at home, here are a few quick tips on building skills at every age in the development of rights respecting individuals:

Pre-K and early elementary kids:

  1. Ask “How would you feel if . . . ?”
  2. Have them identify the emotions of themselves and others.
  3. Read them fiction.

Middle level kids:

  1. Build their self-esteem.
  2. Connect school learning to big picture questions about life and community.
  3. Role-play positive actions in difficult social situations.

High school kids:

  1. Give them rights, and hold them accountable for related responsibilities.
  2. Encourage them to ask “why?” when they see social injustice.
  3. Offer international news sources and challenge them to think of themselves as a local and a global citizen.

Maybe jot these tips down on your student’s back-to-school list this year and share them with teachers. It is our shared community and democracy, and the skills your kids will develop from human rights education are certainly as important as differentiating between a gerund and participle – and that, coming from a grammar nerd like me, is saying something!

Sarah Herder is the Education Director at The Advocates for Human Rights