Curriculum shines light on defenders of human rights

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U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand and Kennedy stand with NYSUT President Dick Iannuzzi and members of the committee. Photo by Andrew Watson.

This article by Betsy Sandberg appears in the December 2011 edition of NYSUT United.

Saints sealed in stained glass and prophets painted on ceilings. As a youngster, that’s how Kerry Kennedy recalled thinking of heroes.

In her work leading more than 40 human rights delegations across the globe, she met many people she describes as having “great valor and heart, committed to noble purpose, with long records of personal sacrifice” in every country of the world. Because these people “are living, breathing human beings in our midst … they challenge each of us to take up the torch for a more decent society.”

Her book, Speak Truth To Power: Human rights defenders who are changing our world, examined the lives of people and the causes to which they had devoted their lives. The book has been adapted into a dramatic production, and photographs have been turned into an exhibition.

Now, thanks to NYSUT and the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights, an education curriculum continues to light torches to address human rights.

The lessons and resource materials, written by teachers across the state, will be available online at www.nysut.org and at www.rfkcenter.org in the coming weeks.

The curriculum, geared for grades 6-12, “focuses on defenders who spoke up for those with no voice, regardless of the threat of physical or psychological harm to themselves,” NYSUT President Dick Iannuzzi writes in the introduction, adding his hope that teachers will move forward the advocacy of the defenders in their own lesson plans.

Sheila St. Onge was one of the NYSUT teachers on the 30-member curriculum committee. The sixth-grade social studies teacher and Byram Hills Teachers Association member said she had already been using Kennedy’s book in her lessons.

“Of course we all teach about Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks, but the book describes contemporary people dealing with current issues that our students may be dealing with right now as well,” St. Onge said. She appreciates how lessons from this curriculum can be easily woven into what teachers are already doing in their classrooms.

“Everything complements what we’re already being asked to do,” St. Onge said, noting the curriculum gives suggestions when teachers can incorporate Speak Truth to Power into their classroom.

“I believe this curriculum should be a mandatory part of our state’s social studies programs,” said Mary Pavelchak, noting human rights violations both past and present across the globe are taught throughout high school courses.

For example “when we start to discuss slavery in U.S. History and Government, I ask students if they think slavery still exists in the world today,” the Nanuet TA member said. “Many were shocked to realize slavery still exists, and it has been found right here in the United States, with human trafficking. They were shocked to see the statistics of trafficking of women and children around the world.”

At the end of a unit on the slave trade, Pavelchak said, “We researched other forms of slavery occurring today. Students were able to see individuals such as Juliana Dogbadzi, who was a victim of slavery in Ghana for 17 years due to a custom known as trokosi, in which young girls are sent into lifelong servitude.”

The lessons also work in English. “As an 11th-grade teacher who covers the Civil War era and slavery, I can easily incorporate Dogbadzi’s story and the current issues surrounding human trafficking and sex slavery,” said Sue Halpern, in her 26th year as a Chenango Valley TA member. “Other issues could be a part of any thematic unit on human rights.”

While many of the defender stories are about forced labor, involving children or adults, other defenders have worked to help get rights to credit, free speech and political participation in their countries.

“Through compelling stories of remarkable people protecting the most basic human rights, our teachers and students can use this Speak Truth to Power curriculum not only to learn valuable lessons, but also to apply the principles of human rights to their own lives and situations they may encounter,” said NYSUT Vice President Maria Neira.

Joe Karb of the Springville Faculty Association agreed.

“There are so many teachable moments throughout the year where the modern examples in this curriculum can be used,” said the 13-year veteran.

St. Onge concurred. “There is so much bad news, things beyond our students’ control that I think students are eager for this curriculum. Speak Truth To Power shows kids there are people who are fixing problems right now. Their actions and words serve as role models and encourage students to work for the changes they want to see in their world.”

NYSUT Secretary-Treasurer Lee Cutler said encouraging students to be courageous and to be defenders of human rights can be refreshing and meaningful for students, especially during troubled times. “This curriculum and approach can show students how they can actually make positive things happen, even if it takes a large measure of courage.”

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