The Human Rights Writing Unit–Essential Questions

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After I introduced the concept of human rights to my students, we explored the essential questions for the writing unit.   Before writing their own arguments, students must be able to analyze other people’s arguments.

WHAT ARE ESSENTIAL QUESTIONS?

For those of you who are not familiar with the term “essential questions”, essential questions—in short—are a set of questions that help students think about the big picture related to the topics that will be discussed in any given unit.  However, they have an even more important function, which separates them from more content specific questions.  These questions must be transferable across disciplines and even help students think about the greater impact in the world.  Education leaders are always telling teachers to include essential questions in their units, but often fail to explain what they are and why we should use them.  So, there you go.

HUMAN RIGHTS EXPOSITION AND ARGUMENTATION WRITING UNIT – ESSENTIAL QUESTIONS

I posted the following essential questions on the screen:

ESSENTIAL QUESTIONS HUMAN RIGHTS

Before we began our discussion, I reminded the students that we were going to examine the writing of various human rights leaders/writers/thinkers and think about their ideas using these essential questions.  I added that these questions are not only applicable to the printed word, but we can ask ourselves these questions in response to verbal communication as well.  Many people get their news from the television.  We often listen to and watch the news and editorials through the tube.  Some of these questions apply to those situations, too.

WHY DO PEOPLE PROTEST?

First, I asked the students to write down the possible answers to the first question.  Afterwards, I told them discuss their responses in their small groups.  Then we talked about them as a class.  The general consensus was that people protest because they think something is wrong and they want to fix it.  Students also said that people protest so they can get others to hear what they are saying.  I then referred to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights to show how that is true.  The Universal Declaration of Human Rights would not have been developed if we lived in a perfect world.

WHAT FORMS OF COMMUNICATION HAVE PEOPLE USED TO EXPRESS THEIR DISCONTENT?

Again, I asked the students to write down some possible answers and then discuss them in their small groups.

As we continued our conversation, students shared a variety of answers about the different forms of communication protesters use to express their concerns:

marches

riots

boycotts

speeches

meetings

posters

letters

In addition to the list of communication methods, I asked the students to recall examples of when these methods were used in the past.

The Declaration of Independence was a protest against the English monarchy.  People walked instead of taking the bus to work during the Montgomery Bus Boycott.  Recently, Americans marched for women’s rights, right to life, science, and taxes.  State citizens around the country have been gathering at town halls to meet with their representatives to voice their concerns.

However, protests are also conducted on smaller scales, too.  What about the student dress code?  Students protest by walking around with shirts hanging out.  The dress code is discussed during student council meetings. Grievances are then brought to the principal’s attention.

Maybe you don’t want to eat meatloaf again.  Perhaps mom will make tacos instead.

People are always protesting for some reason or another.  And we protest in many ways.

Although I didn’t tell the students that we already started talking about question 3, I finally brought it to their attention.

WHAT CLAIMS DO HUMAN RIGHTS LEADERS MAKE?  HOW DO THEY SUPPORT THEIR IDEAS?

I included this question for many reasons.  First, evidenced-based writing is a hallmark of the Common Core English Language Arts Standards—for intermediate, middle, and high school.  Students are expected to develop main ideas/theses and support them with evidence.  And depending on the grade level, the evidence has to be relevant and well-chosen.  A powerful way students can begin to understand what we mean when we want them to do this in their writing is to give them opportunities to read other people’s writing and examine how they go about arguing their own claims.   Students should not only identify the supporting evidence, but they should also think about how well each idea supports the claims they are making in the first place.  Although students are not expected to evaluate the evidence until grade 8, it is still a good idea for teachers at the upper elementary level to begin asking these types of questions.

For example, in the Declaration of Independence, our forefathers listed the actions of the king, such as imposing taxes without the consent of the people, cutting off trade, and destroying their communities through military invasion.  Why did they include these actions in the declaration?  How would removing them weaken the argument?  How do they strengthen the argument?

BACK TO THE UNIVERSAL DECLARATION OF HUMAN RIGHTS

Now that we have had many discussions about human rights issues, it was time to talk about the outcome that these protesters have been fighting for.

Question 4 asks the students to recall some human rights issues and show how they are reflected in our law.  After a short deliberation in small groups, we began to talk about the kinds of laws we have in our own country.  Why were these laws created in the first place?

The right to bear arms came up again.  I asked the students why the right to bear arms became the law of the land.  One student said that people should have the right to protect themselves.  He said it is a human right for anyone to be able to defend themselves if they are attacked or threatened to be attacked.

Another student raised her hand and identified freedom of speech.  Human beings have the right to say what is on their minds without the fear of being attacked.  We have that law because people were not allowed to speak their minds to the king without a severe punishment.

Then I referred to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and reminded them that this is a right that many people are still fighting for around the world.

HOW DO LEADERS WHO HAVE FOUGHT AGAINST INJUSTICE USE THEIR WORDS TO INFLUENCE THEIR AUDIENCE?

One of the writing traits that many students struggle with is voice.  What is voice?  We all have a distinct way of using our words.  However, voice is more than just letting your personality shine through in your writing.  Voice is more than using passive or active voice.

A Writer’s Voice

When I teach the voice trait to my students, I ask them to think about two major aspects:  purpose and audience.  Why are they writing?  People generally write to inform, persuade, entertain, or reflect.  So any time we sit down to write, we need to know why we are writing.  The challenge with most writing assignments—and I have been guilty of this one—is that they are generally written to submit to the teacher.  That’s it.  So, this may be a reason why so many struggle with developing this trait.

So, when students are asked to sit down and write something, they need to know the purpose.  Why are you writing in the first place?  Are you just informing your audience about how sloths survive in the rain forest?  Or perhaps you think sloths use the most efficient ways to survive in their environment.  Notice the difference?  The evidence a writer uses in the first instance will be just to explain how they survive.  No judgment, right?  However, the latter asks the writer to do something else.  The writer must show the reader why the sloth’s survival skills are so much more efficient than the skills of other animals.  In this case, the writer is judging the sloth’s survival skills by claiming that their cleverness enables them to survive more successfully than some of their neighbors in the rain forest.

HOW DO LEADERS WHO HAVE FOUGHT AGAINST INJUSTICE USE THEIR WORDS TO INFLUENCE THEIR AUDIENCE?

In the case of the essential question, students will examine a writer’s choice of words.  In short, writers should mean what they say and say what they mean.  Words are powerful and are often used to change people’s minds.  Students will examine how different writers have used their words to move their intended audiences to action.

A Writer’s Word Choice

When it is time for my students to revise their essays, I tell them to ask themselves a few questions:

  1. Did you use your words correctly? Sometimes we think we know the meaning of a word, use it, and then later find out that our readers didn’t understand it in the way we wanted them to.  This can be caused by misusing words.
  2. Did you use precise words? For example, did you say shoes or flip flops?  Did you say it was nice outside or that it was sunny and warm enough to wear shorts outside?
  3. Did you use too much jargon or overly complicated vocabulary? Writers often like to show their audience that they are smart.  They use special words that are either unique to a field or discipline or words you only see on SAT exams.  Most people like others to communicate with them in plain language.  Readers want to relate to the author.
  4. Did you avoid using a lot of clichés? Words or phrases can sometimes be overused.  Readers like to read the words of original thinkers.

NEXT POST

In my next post, we will meet Malala Yousafzai.  She is the winner of the Nobel Peace Prize and was almost killed by the Taliban in her home country, Pakistan, for going to school and being a champion of education for girls.  We will read one of her speeches to the United Nations.  Together we will examine her speech:  What’s her claim?  How does she support her claim?  Why does she include certain details and use certain words?  And what does this tell us about her audience?  In addition to the essential questions, we will use parts of the 6 Traits for Good Writing to analyze her message.

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