As an educator who actively seeks the best interests of my students, I believe that I have a personal responsibility to stand up against exclusion, prejudice, and injustice both in and outside of the classroom. I currently work in an affluent suburban school district where the faculty and student body are predominantly white. I believe that working in an environment that mostly consists of white students and educators, it then becomes that much more important for me to be an advocate for the handful of students who are of different races, ethnicities and abilities. In order to do so, I must educate myself on social justice issues, as well as take every opportunity to include Human Rights Education (HRE) in my curriculum.
While it may be argued that children in the primary grades are too young or too immature to learn about controversial topics such as issues in social justice or human rights, I think that such opinions can heavily underestimate the intelligence of students. Whether a topic regarding social justice is viewed as too broad or too complex for students to understand, children at the primary level still have a rather keen sense on the difference between right and wrong. “HRE in primary school is thus necessary for shaping the attitudes that will contribute to the building or a universal culture of human rights” (Struthers, 2016, p. 132). I believe that teachers have the responsibility to inform students of what their rights are and why those rights are important in their daily lives, as well as understanding that some individuals are denied those basic rights. To promote this pedagogy, I believe it’s absolutely necessary to have HRE mainstreamed and part of our teaching curriculum. If teachers are able to openly discuss social issues with their students, it sends a message to the students that HRE and social justice issues are not “taboo” or controversial and that we should be talking about them.
In terms of HRE in the primary grade levels, I believe that social justice issues of race and discrimination particularly lend themselves to many educational read alouds in the classroom. I think that read alouds are a wonderful starting point for teachers to use as a platform to advocate for social justice issues that are relevant and meaningful to their class, whether students are explicitly aware of it or not. Picture books such as The Crayon Box That Talked by Shane Derolf, deal with anti-discrimination theme. In the story, the Crayons prefer to be in separate crayon boxes with only their colors, but when a little girl buys the crayon box and creates a picture, the crayons see what beautiful things that happen when they come together.
Another great picture book is The Invisible Boy by Trudy Ludwig, which deals with issues of exclusion. In this story, Brian feels invisible and nobody seems to notice him in school. This changes when he meets Justin, a new student. When Brian and Justin work on a class project together, Brian finds a way to stand out. Although these picture books are simple, they both have prevalent themes that children can easily identify and elaborate on in a class discussion with appropriate facilitation from the classroom teacher.
With the responsibility of standing up to exclusion, prejudice, and injustice, I also believe teachers have the responsibility of encouraging students to work together to make a difference in their community. “It is critical for teacher candidates to move beyond “individual heroism” to collaborative action in order to enact change beyond the walls of their classrooms.” (Storms, 2013, p. 37) One personal example of students working together pertains to an inspirational event that happened in my school last year. As part of their persuasive writing unit, a group of 3rd grade students advocated for their peer, who has cerebral palsy and primarily uses a wheelchair, to include proper accessible equipment added to our school’s playground. His wheelchair was unable to roll over the wood chips because they would get stuck in the wheels, which made it nearly impossible for him to transport himself around the playground to play with his classmates. He also has limited ability in his legs and he gets tired very easily when using his walking sticks. The students realized that if their own classmate couldn’t participate on the playground, imagine how many other students with disabilities at the school couldn’t experience a fun recess. They decided to write persuasive letters to our principal, superintendent, and school board arguing for adaptive playground equipment. Students and teachers created fundraising campaigns and sure enough, their hard work paid off. Our school is now in the process of building additional adaptive equipment that is wheelchair accessible and can be used by children of all ability levels. Poplin and Rivera (2005) argue, “Students need teachers who are willing and able to teach them the common skills and concepts they will need to be productive citizens, as well as teachers who can guide them in developing personal perspectives and meanings through experimentations, dialogue, and creative opportunities” (p. 31). Without the implementation of Human Rights Education and dedicated educators who consistently encourage students to use their voices to make a positive difference in society, none of these changes would have happened. I believe that I have the responsibility to not only advocate for a positive change, but also to inspire my students to believe that their voices matter.
Poplin, M., & Rivera, J. (2005). Merging Social Justice and Accountability: Educating Qualified and Effective Teachers. Theory Into Practice, 27-37.
Storms, S. B. (2013). Preparing Teachers for Social Justice Advocacy. Multicultural Education, 20(2), 33-39.
Struthers, A. C. (2016). Human Rights: A Topic Too Controversial for Mainstream Education?. Human Rights Law Review, 131-162.