My students finally finished the video about how to define human rights. After the video was over, I gave them another minute or two to record additional thoughts or ideas learned from the presentation. Then I told them to share their responses in small groups. Since I have two seventh grade sections, I will just address them as one group for the sake of clarity.
After a few minutes, I called on some people to share what they learned. Many agreed that they never knew there was a document created for universal human rights. As a matter of fact, most didn’t even realize there were universal rights for people. Others pointed out that they were not aware that Cyrus the Great was regarded as the first to acknowledge that all people had natural rights that could not be taken away from them. At this point I added a note about another cultural group that has had a history with trying to make life more equitable for people in their country.
China has a very long history that spans thousands of years. Like most other civilizations, governments have risen and fallen. However, China has also tried to deal with issues of human rights. Maybe not exactly in the way we view it, but there are some thinkers who argue that there may be some compatibility between Confucianism and the moral imperative to give all people equal opportunities in society.
At one time, it was not possible for anyone to move ahead in Chinese government or society without being born into the right family. Of course, this has always been a global challenge. As a matter of fact, we still struggle with these forces in our contemporary world. I told the students that the Han Dynasty, which many Chinese believe they are directly linked to, attempted to institute a more equitable society through a merit-based system. During the Han dynastic period, there were many technological and scientific developments and achievements. Some researchers agree that this belief in a more equitable system caused the society to prosper.
Without going too deeply into Chinese history, I was trying to make a point that the human rights issue has always been a concern for people around the world, even if they didn’t use the actual term “human rights”. And although the video focused on the history of human rights in western civilization, the producers did a good job showing how leaders from other areas of the world, such as Gandhi, Mandela, and Malala have been champions of human rights. Even before the United Nations came together to establish these rights, people have been tirelessly fighting for them. Moreover, people view human rights issues differently around the world; however, this universal declaration is a way to protect as many people as possible for the greatest good. We also agreed that our Bill of Rights reflect these ideals.
After our short discussion, I gave everyone a copy of the kid-friendly Universal Declaration of Human Rights. I asked the students to read them and write down anything that pops out at them during the reading. For example, maybe there is a right listed that you never heard of before. Maybe one of the rights will inspire you to think about an experience you had. I encouraged them to come up with about 3 thoughts that popped into their mind while reading the list.
After they finished reading and taking a few notes, they shared them in their small groups.
After a few minutes, our class conversation continued.
I asked for someone to share something that came to their mind during the reading. One student raised his hand and shared a great observation. He said that he didn’t see the right to bear arms on the list. I told him that that was an important observation. I then turned to the rest of the class and stated that the right to bear arms is not a universal idea. However, it is one of the hallmarks of our American culture. And even though it is understood as a basic human right here, the right to bear arms is still a hotly debated issue in our country as well as around the world. Some people believe that the 2nd Amendment has not been interpreted correctly. To some, a well-regulated militia refers to groups like our national guard but not to individuals. Many, on the other hand, believe it is everyone’s right. And then there is even a fraction of the country who thinks it should be entirely removed from our national law. My student who made the observation was very surprised.
I then added that sometimes we see the world from our little box and think everyone else thinks the same way.
So you may be asking yourself, what does all of this have to do with writing? A writing class is more than just about reading a text and writing about it. Writing, if you really think about it, is “thinking on paper”. What this means is that in order for students to write something, they have to have something to think about. If we want our students to be writers who compose thoughtfully written and well supported compositions, then we must first let them learn/read about whatever it is we want them to think about and then think out loud. Moreover, studies have shown that many students have difficulty writing or reading because they have insufficient background knowledge. Although I do agree that the act of writing itself helps one to become a better writer, it also helps when students have been given opportunities to learn about something, connect it to what they already know, think about it from multiple perspectives, and then write about it in a focused, organized, and thoughtful manner. These traits of good writing also have to be directly taught through modeling and direct instruction.
As a result of these class conversations, it is my hope that the students will begin to successfully zoom in on an area that interests them. In this way, they can begin conducting their own research. If I just started this unit by telling the students to develop a thesis on a human rights topic with little or no foundation, there would most likely be a lot of confusion. Students need to be walked through the research and writing processes step by step.
Issue of Educational Equity – Class and Culture
Many students in our nation’s schools come to us with insufficient background knowledge due to many factors. In some cases, students come from low socioeconomic backgrounds. In many of these homes, students have grown up without books in the home, access to a library or a person who can take them to the library, someone to read to them, and the ability to travel, even outside their own neighborhoods. Therefore, teachers have a responsibility to expose their students to as much information and experiences as possible so they have the ability to perform at a level comparable with their higher socioeconomic status peers.
In addition to class, we also teach students who come from different cultures. Some speak English as second language. In these cases, building background knowledge is essential, because many of our Limited English Proficiency (LEP) students may come from a culture that is very different from our own. Allowing those students to share the knowledge of their primary culture as it relates to the class focus helps them to bridge the gap between what they know and don’t know about the new culture.
In my next entry, I will write about my students’ introduction to our unit’s essential questions and how the questions relate to what we are going to read in the coming days.