Monday, August 25, 2014

What we talk about when we talk about human rights

How can you say one human right is more important than another? Aren't they all equally significant? Isn't it the compilation of rights that makes the Declaration of Human Rights so special?

Well, I will be throwing all of that out the window tomorrow!

Although all of these 30 human rights are important, I think it would be insincere to say that they all hold the same weight for every person.  Each individual brings with them experiences that shape how they see these rights.  Some of my students and their families struggle with food insecurity and unstable living situations.  For those students, the right to have food and shelter clearly hits home.

During our gallery walk through the 30 rights, many of my students commented and made connections to the right to move, as well as the right to seek a safe place to live.  Some had their own personal connections, as they and their families are new immigrants to this country.  Others referenced the documentary "Which Way Home" that we watched last year.  If you haven't seen this film, I would definitely check it out.  It is on Netlfix, and you can check it out on the official website:

Other students commented on what they had seen in the news regarding immigration.  I was pleasantly surprised that some were aware of the most recent struggles immigrants have been facing, and that they were questioning how these trials could even exist if the declaration of human rights also exists.

Some students also recognized that some rights could potentially contradict each other.  One student in particular referenced the freedom of expression with the example of graffiti.  If people feel free to express themselves through graffiti, they may simultaneously be restricting another individual's right to live without being discriminated against or bullied.  They may also be destroying someones property. Clearly, teaching and discussing these rights brings up some complex issues that do not have simple answers.

Tomorrow, I will have my students watch 30-second videos about each of these 30 rights.  Afterward, they will analyze 3 rights, before choosing one right that they want to focus on and become "an expert" on.  Although I want my kids to recognize the significance of each right, I also think that it is important for them to connect strongly to one or two.  Most people who work to preserve the human rights of those around the world have a focus, while still having an appreciation for the declaration as a whole. Hopefully my kids will see to big picture, while still being able to zoom in on a right that speaks to them!      

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Jumping Into Human Rights (and happiness!)

I have wanted to blog ALL week about the wonderful discussions I've had with my kids so far, but it has been crazy!  I don't know why I am always shocked by the amount of busy work, on top of real planning and problem solving, that comes up in these first few weeks.  But I have finally put it all aside for the meantime, and want to get back to real gems of the week!

First, we started off by reading an inspiring article in Scholastic's Scope magazine about a young girl battling cancer.  What made this story so powerful was this young girl's message.  She wrote that having cancer helped teach her to be grateful for what she has, even if it wasn't what she had dreamed of.  This is an important lesson for everyone, but especially for teenagers.  We all need to take time to recognize the good fortune in our own lives, and appreciate the little things that make each day special.

I have been working on this in my own life, and I know that it can be challenging.  During the summer, I was dealing with a lot of changes in my life.  So, I decided to focus on the positive aspects of those changes, as well as all of the many blessings in my life, rather than the disappointments. I began the 100 Happy Days Challenge:   I'm not posting my daily thoughts - I'm just keeping a running list for myself.  After reading the Scope article, and taking part in the 100 Happy Days Challenge for a few weeks, I decided I wanted to start off the school year doing this with my kids!  So, we began this week and will continue this challenge for the next 100 days of school.

The next day, I introduced the topic of social justice by reading one of my favorite books, 14 Cows for America ("You say that about all of your books." - one child retorted).  If you haven't read it, you MUST!  I won't give anything away, but the last line sums it up pretty nicely: 

          “Because there is no nation so powerful it cannot be wounded, nor a people so small they cannot offer mighty comfort.” 

If that doesn't draw you in, I don't know what will!

And finally, today we introduced the Declaration of Human Rights by using another one of my favorite books (ok, maybe I do say that a lot), Every Human Has Rights and the outstanding Youth For Human Rights website  We started with The Story of Human Rights documentary, which I would strongly recommend for anyone who is interested in getting some background information about human rights. 

As I have done in the past, we took each of the rights outlined in the book, which are basically a more kid-friendly version of each of the 30 rights from the United Nations declaration, posted them around the room, and the kids did a gallery walk.  As they walked and read, each student added post-its with questions, comments, or connections to the rights.  I can't even begin to tell you how amazing this first day of discussion was for me! Watching their faces as they watched the video, reading every single right, asking questions, making connections to their own lives - it was pretty cool, to say the least.  

I'm going to leave you here, dying of anticipating, since this post has gotten way too long.  But I will be back soon with more details from our journey through human rights.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Back to school jitters

At the beginning of every school year, no matter how excited I am to get back, I always have a few minor jitters.   When I was a kid, I packed and repacked my back pack, imagined walking the halls like I was a cast member on "Saved By the Bell", and stressed about which teacher I would have that year.

As a teacher, the jitters are different, but they're still there.

Am I prepared?
Do I really know what I'm doing?
Will the kids know if I don't know what I'm doing?
Will they understand that everything I'm trying to do is meant to help them?

This year is a bit different though. I have the same kiddos from last year.  This is good thing, I think.  I already know them well, and I am so excited to see how they have grown and matured over the summer.  But, I am also worried.  Many of these kids have pretty though lives, to put it lightly.  I have thought about many of them over the summer, wondering if they are safe, staying out of trouble, or even if they have enough to eat.  This year, my jitters are more about my students and less about me.

With the worry (why am I such a good worrier!?), comes excitement as well.  I am so thrilled to start our journey together.  Eighth grade was one of my favorite years growing up.  There's the trip to Springfield, dinner dance, and graduation presentations. On a day to day basis, there is also the excitement of being the top dogs in the school.  But as Voltaire said (or Spiderman, depending on your source),  “With great power comes great responsibility”.   I want my kids to seize this year and recognize the power they have in the world.  As we learn about the great social justice superheroes that have come before us, my hope is that these kids will leave a little bit kinder, a little bit wiser, and a great deal more confident in the power they have to be the change makers of the future. 

Now do you understand my jitters??? That's a lot of responsibility on my part!  But I am ready and willing.  No, I am more than willing. I am honored.  

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

What is a social justice superhero?

What is a social justice superhero?

Do they wear capes and save kittens in trees?
Are they the loudest voice in the room?
Do they make everyone else feel inferior?
Are they perfect?

I guess my definition of a social justice superhero is someone who wants to make the world a better place.  This can mean someone who dedicates their entire life to creating worldwide change, but it can also be someone who lives their life meaningfully.  Someone who recognizes that they have a voice and a choice when it comes to doing the right thing.

I have been extremely lucky to grow up around a huge cast of social justice superheros, starting with my parents.  My mom and dad taught me from a very young age to treat people kindly and try to understand other peoples' ideas, beliefs and circumstances.  They also helped me realize how truly lucky I was to have my family, friends, health and so much more.  Being aware of my own good fortune, helped me develop sympathy for those less fortunate. I'm thankful for my parents, and their parents before them, for being such good models of character for me.

Another social justice superhero who continues to shape me is my good friend Elissa Froman. Elissa worked in Washington, D.C. for many years fighting for rights of women all over the world.  She helped pass laws that have truly made this country better.  But Elissa was more than the bills she worked on, or politicians she met.  She cared deeply about people - from the homeless individuals she passed on the street to the children in seemingly far away, war-torn lands.  Unfortunately, Elissa's life was cut painfully short.  Although she is no longer with us, I know her ideas, principles, and genuine kind-hearted nature will live on with the many people she touched throughout her life. 

Teaching middle school for the last few years has been rewarding, fun, and extremely exhausting all at the same time.  What I like most about teaching kids at this age is seeing them grow and realize that they have a place in this world.  My hope this year is for my students to learn about the many social justice superheroes that have shaped our world so far, and help them realize that they too can become a social justice superhero!

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